“The Whistleblower” is a movie that labors to be taken seriously — and has too little to show for its efforts.
Shot in a stark, grim style — part handheld faux-documentary, part gritty ‘70s drama — it tells the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), an earnest American cop who takes a U.N. peacekeeping job in postwar Bosnia. She soon stumbles on a human trafficking network that’s not just tolerated, but actively abetted by the U.N.’s privately contracted forces. Sure enough, Bolkovac, dissatisfied with her role as a detached observer, makes it her mission to out the dirty peacekeepers — and save at least a few of the women they’ve helped imprison.
It’s a tough, true-enough tale of one woman against the system. But despite the story’s real-life origins, the narrative has been hammered into an all-too-familiar form: Naive but strong-willed protagonist with a strong sense of righteousness? Check. Callous overseers whose only concern is maintaining public appearances? Check. Sneering colleagues on the take who brush off the protagonist’s inquiries? And check.
With its herky-jerky camerawork and ripped-from-the-headlines realism, first-time director and co-writer Larysa Kondracki seems to envision the movie as a sort of global feminist take on “Serpico,” but it ends up playing more like a very special episode of “Law & Order: Bosnia.” The script, by Ms. Kondracki and Eilis Kirwan, juggles too many characters and too little journalistic specifics. Besides Bolkovac, we meet a U.N. human rights official (Vanessa Redgrave), a by-the-book agency head who sees the problem but refuses to rock the boat (Monica Belluci) and a conveniently helpful internal affairs investigator (David Strathairn), as well as a host of Bosnian criminals and victims and a handful of U.N. higher-ups. But none of them register as anything other than talking plot devices.
Miss Weisz, as always, is an engaging, forceful presence, yet her natural strength is blunted by the script’s numerous rookie weaknesses. Ms. Kondracki and Ms. Kirwan work to portray Ms. Bolkovac as a model of professional competence, yet, as written, she’s hopelessly out of her depth. After thugs intercept a local police transport vehicle she ordered, she has to be told that there may be a leak in the department. Later, another character finds it necessary to inform her that the press might be interested in the U.N.’s complicity and cover-up.
Nor does she come off as much of an investigator: Aside from the now-standard cop-movie montage in which she pins case-related pictures and notes on a corkboard, she’s does precious little detective work. Indeed, the script frequently has trouble dramatizing the corruption at its core.
For a movie about victims trapped in an unjust system, “Whistleblower” is surprisingly vague when it comes to procedural detail. Perhaps that’s because it’s never quite sure whether it wants to be a drama, a thriller, or a straightforward message movie. When the script isn’t feeding its characters clunky plot points, it’s giving them canned sermons. The movie isn’t quite pure essay, but it’s telling that one of the climactic moments consists of the writing (and reading aloud) of an overly poetic memo about the horrors of human trafficking.
Even as a message movie, though, it’s undercooked: Yes, of course sexual slavery is evil — but did we need a movie to tell us that? If so, it sure wasn’t this one.
TITLE: “The Whistleblower”
RATING: R for rape, torture
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS