20 whistleblower movies to watch: All the President's Men, The Report, and more
Spilling the beans
It seems movies about whistleblowers are more relevant than ever — indeed, three such movies hit screens in 2019 — but this particular subgenre has a rich, storied tradition, stretching all the way back to the days of classic Hollywood. With The Report and Dark Waters arriving in theaters this month, here are 20 whistleblower-themed films worth exposing for the powerful watches they are.
On the Waterfront (1954)
On the Waterfront tells the tale of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a boxer-turned-longshoreman whose guilty conscience slowly turns him against the mob-connected union leader who rules the docks. The Oscar-winning classic also had its roots in a different sort of whistleblowing: At the height of the McCarthy era, Waterfront director Elia Kazan became a pariah in Hollywood for naming former Communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee. This film is often viewed as Kazan's response to his detractors, and the parallels aren't hard to spot.
In between playing a mafia boss in The Godfather and its sequel, Al Pacino took on the role of Frank Serpico, a real-life NYPD officer who became determined to expose the widespread corruption within the force. The film remains widely regarded as a classic today, anchored by Pacino's typically fierce performance and Sidney Lumet's sterling direction and use of New York City.
All the President's Men (1976)
Still the journalism movie all others aspire toward, All the President's Men tracks Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) as their diligent work steadily uncovers the full breadth and depth of the Watergate scandal with the help of an anonymous source, Deep Throat.
Legendary director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) helmed this drama based on the life of Karen Silkwood (played by Meryl Streep), who died in a mysterious car crash while investigating harmful practices at the nuclear plant where she worked. Kurt Russell and Cher co-star as Silkwood's boyfriend and housemate — which, on paper, sounds like the setup for the world's best sitcom. But in practice, Silkwood is a powerful slow burn, deep-diving into its subject's everyday life and burgeoning crusade.
The Insider (1999)
Erin Brockovich (2000)
With Pacific Gas & Electric making headlines again for their role in California's spate of wildfires, it's an apt time to revisit Steven Soderbergh's legal drama (for which he lost the Best Director Oscar... to himself, for Traffic). Erin Brockovich stars Julia Roberts as the title character, who discovers PG&E has contaminated a small town's water supply and masterminds a legal crusade against the company.
The Constant Gardener (2005)
The Constant Gardener stars Ralph Fiennes as a Kenya-stationed British diplomat who, while investigating the murder of his wife (Rachel Weisz, in an Oscar-winning performance), uncovers the malicious conduct of a pharmaceutical company that she had been investigating. The film burns with the same moral urgency as the John le Carré novel it's based on; as the author noted, "By comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard."
North Country (2005)
Before helming Disney's live-action Mulan, Niki Caro directed Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand to Oscar nominations in North Country, which follows mineworker Josey Aimes (Theron) as she spearheads the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in U.S. history. Somewhat tepidly received upon release (EW called it "the right movie at the wrong time"), North Country may be primed for rediscovery in the #MeToo era.
Michael Clayton (2007)
If you like your whistleblower dramas a little more heightened, Michael Clayton, written and directed by Bourne writer Tony Gilroy, is the movie for you. George Clooney plays the title character, a fixer for a high-profile law firm who falls into a web of intense corporate espionage involving one of the firm's clients. Also featured: Tilda Swinton as the client's ruthless lawyer and some tense sequences that validate the paranoia at the heart of all great whistleblower films.
The Informant! (2009)
Almost a decade after Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh delivered a more askew take on the whistleblower tale with The Informant!, written by future The Report writer-director Scott Z. Burns. A game Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, a high-level VP at a massive company who worked with the FBI to expose a price-fixing conspiracy there. The film stands out for its eccentric approach: Soderbergh packed the cast with comedians — Joel McHale, Patton Oswalt, even the Smothers Brothers — and adopted an arch tone that bugged as many critics as it impressed.
The Most Dangerous Man in America (2009) and The Post (2017)
A few real-life whistleblowers have had their stories told onscreen through both documentary and dramatization. One such example: Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers and exposed secret U.S. government activity relating to the Vietnam War. The Oscar-nominated documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America tracks Ellsberg through the leadup to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, while Steven Spielberg's The Post tells the story of the Washington Post journalists who published them, starring Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham, Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee, and Matthew Rhys as Ellsberg.
Fair Game (2010)
If The Report leaves you wanting to relive more Bush administration-era outrages, allow us to recommend Fair Game, based on the 2003 Plame affair. That scandal revolved around the administration's outing of Valerie Plame (played by Naomi Watts) as a CIA operative, ostensibly in retaliation for her diplomat husband's (Sean Penn) criticism of the Iraq War. (He wrote a New York Times op-ed debunking the administration's WMD rationale.) The film shifts between spy thriller and domestic drama to explore, as EW's Owen Gleiberman put it, "What’s greater, the price of hiding the truth — or telling it?"
We Steal Secrets (2013) and The Fifth Estate (2013)
Remember when WikiLeaks was better known for whistleblowing than for helping interfere in U.S. elections? Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets and Benedict Cumberbatch's The Fifth Estate can't help but look outdated now, but both fascinatingly chart WikiLeaks' history and paint vivid portraits of founder Julian Assange.
Citizenfour (2014) and Snowden (2016)
Edward Snowden may be the most significant, and is certainly the most famous, whistleblower of the last decade, with his revelations about the National Security Agency's surveillance practices reshaping our views on technology, privacy, and intelligence. Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning Citizenfour is an essential document, chronicling the days Snowden spent in Hong Kong making his initial disclosures to Poitras and two other journalists. Oliver Stone's Snowden, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the title character, is less essential, but helps illuminate the man himself and boasts a solid performance from Gordon-Levitt.
Official Secrets (2019)
Official Secrets dramatizes a lesser-known (at least Stateside) but no less vital whistleblower story: That of Katharine Gun (played by Keira Knightley). Gun, a British government employee, leaked a secret memo about an illegal NSA operation to pressure the UN Security Council to sanction the Iraq War. "What’s interesting about this film is it’s set in 2003... Yet it still feels like we don’t have the conclusion of this story," Knightley told EW in August. "We’re still very much living with it."
The Report (2019)
The injustices of the War on Terror hang heavily over the movies this year. The Report follows Adam Driver as Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones, who led an investigation into the CIA's use of torture in the wake of 9/11. A star-studded cast playing a roster of familiar government figures surround Driver, including Annette Bening as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Jon Hamm as President Obama's chief of staff.
Dark Waters (2019)
2019 is a hot year for whistleblowers onscreen. (Wonder why. Do themes of speaking truth to power seem especially relevant now?) Dark Waters shines a spotlight on Robert Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer who undertook a decades-long battle with DuPont over the company's environmental contamination and cover-up.
“I’ve gotten to know Rob very well and have a tremendous amount of admiration for him and the work that he’s done,” Ruffalo said in an interview. “[I want] to help have this information be disseminated out into the world. It’s really important. It’s been underreported and it touches all of our lives. It transcends politics and ideologies. It’s one place I think where we can meet communally.”