- War on Whistleblowers (2013) movie review: Robert Greenwald’s latest political documentary scores points as an indictment of those in the U.S. government who, regardless of party, are determined to preserve their dirty secrets. On the downside, the information provided is neither new nor fully contextualized.
War on Whistleblowers movie review: Robert Greenwald’s documentary makes clear that secrecy is the powerful’s best friend & Lady Justice’s worst enemy
If you want another example of how the lofty intentions of a president-elect inevitably give way to the bitter realities of the intractably crooked and selfish world of realpolitik, here’s an old quote about whistleblowing from the website of the United States’ current commander-in-chief:
Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.
Some of the above statement is true. Mostly the prepositions. The rest, as director Robert Greenwald reminds us in War on Whistleblowers: Fee Press and the National Security State, has been forgotten as yet another political leader comes to understand that secrecy, not transparency, is his best ally.
Two central arguments
In Greenwald’s latest echo-chamber piece, the New York-born Emmy winner makes two central arguments: The first is that the U.S. government has used 9/11 as a justification to increase its anti-whistleblowing activities under the guise of protecting national security. He proves this theory just fine, although one can argue that 9/11 didn’t result in a crackdown on whistleblowers so much as it gave concerned and motivated Americans more whistles to blow.
Greenwald’s other major assertion is made unconsciously: When you direct and executive-produce low-budget, left-wing documentaries at a sprinter’s pace, there is increasingly less hope of wider cultural play, theatrical distribution, or changing the minds of those who don’t already share your views. This argument he proves conclusively, although it’s very possible, of course, that Greenwald is happy just regularly reasserting his totemic place in the liberal-activist docusphere.
And yet the U.S. government’s crackdown on whistleblowing doesn’t seem to ignite the same level of indignation from the director. Maybe it’s because the anti-whistleblowing movement that has metastasized under George W. Bush and Obama is non-partisan, unlike Greenwald’s usual conservative targets, such as the Koch brothers, who were eviscerated in Greenwald’s 2012 doc, Koch Brothers Exposed. Whatever the reason, War on Whistleblowers is an assembly-line effort from a professional gadfly, a perfectly good primer on an oft-discussed but underappreciated topic.
In a brief, less-than-scholarly attempt to trace the history of American whistleblowers, Robert Greenwald name-checks Frank Serpico (Al Pacino in Sidney Lumet’s Serpico), Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood), Mark Felt (a.k.a. “Deep Throat,” Hal Holbrook in All the President’s Men), and Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe in Michael Mann’s 1999 masterpiece, The Insider).
The éminence grise of modern whistleblowers is Daniel Ellsberg – himself the subject of the excellent 2009 documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America – whose leak of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971 helped to turn public opinion against the Vietnam War. Ellsberg is interviewed here, along with a litany of experts with long titles and little effect on our opinion.
Since right-leaning outlets have no interest in making military contractors – or the military in general – look bad, most of the whistleblowers profiled here ran to the New York Times and The New Yorker, which explains Greenwald’s interviews with Times writers David Carr, Bill Keller, and Eric Lipton, along with conservative bête noir Seymour Hersh. Even so, one of the surprising takeaways from the doc is that traditional media is no longer needed to disseminate a whistleblower’s message.
In 2006, after getting stonewalled in his effort to expose critical flaws in the Deepwater program (designed to modernize the Coast Guard fleet), former Lockheed Martin project manager Michael DeKort made his case in a YouTube video. Only then did the issue get noticed, leading to improvements in Coast Guard safety. In addition, that led to DeKort spending years defending himself from those trying to discredit him.
Indeed, this is where Robert Greenwald’s film cashes in on what little indignation it generates. A lone civilian is seemingly no match against deep-pocketed forces that’ll do anything to protect their interests, even if – especially if – the whistleblower’s claims are accurate.
Towards the end of War on Whistleblowers, Thomas Drake, the former NSA senior executive who helped to bring down the Trailblazer project, admits he’s reduced to working at an Apple Store. Ex-Marine Franz Gayl, another Greenwald interviewee, spent years trying to restart his military career after daring to expose government foot-dragging in the deployment of the MRAP, an armored vehicle so effective it would have saved thousands of lives had it been deployed earlier. For Gayl, having his security clearance revoked and being placed on administrative leave was only the beginning.
But the Greenwald interviewee whose disclosures made the most noise is former Department of Justice attorney Thomas Tamm. In 2004, he went to the New York Times claiming the NSA had a secret program to wiretap U.S. citizens without a warrant. The “warrantless wiretapping” scandal, as it would come to be known, was one of the major disgraces of the Bush administration.
Where’s Bradley Manning?
Diluting the power of War on Whistleblowers is that all of his brave subjects have been profiled before, including on 60 Minutes, and there’s too little fresh reporting or new insights. The one name conspicuously missing is Bradley Manning, who is only mentioned in passing by Ellsberg. In fact, the entire WikiLeaks phenomenon is ignored, which seems like a missed opportunity, even if one argues that the only purpose of Robert Greenwald’s documentary is to prove that our government is exploiting 9/11 to crack down on whistleblowers.
Although Greenwald has rarely been one for nuanced analysis, some of his previous films did a better job providing context and breaking new information. His brilliant 2004 documentary, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism and his pointed 2006 effort Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers had enough fire and facts to influence the national conversation. War on Whistleblowers, however, feels like an autopilot creation from a director who puts his name on a lot of anti-conservative product, some of which is released under his Brave New Films banner.
That’s not to say Greenwald doesn’t ultimately prove his point. He does. The U.S. government has never been a fan of those burdened by its secret failings and backroom abuses, and 9/11 has given it the necessary cover to silence citizens in the name of national security. Anti-whistleblowers will routinely question the patriotism of those who dare go public – and yet, whistleblowing is one of the only legitimate means left for Americans to force an administration to admit that it’s gone ethically, financially, and/or legally astray.
In War on Whistleblowers, at least Robert Greenwald is open enough to admit that there are plenty of whistles to go around on both sides of the aisle.
War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State opens on April 19 at New York City’s The Quad and on April 26 at Los Angeles’ Laemmle Music Hall.
War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State (2013)
Director: Robert Greenwald.
Interviewees: Daniel Ellsberg. Michael DeKort. Franz Gayl. Thomas Tamm. Thomas Drake. Jane Mayer. Michael Isikoff. Franz Gayl. David Carr. Bill Keller. Eric Lipton.
“War on Whistleblowers (2013) Movie Review” endnotes
War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State Thomas Drake and Lady Justice images: Brave New Films.
“War on Whistleblowers Movie (2013): Democracy in Disarray” last updated in January 2022.