Heading into the last month of Spring and the first of Summer is always a juncture where I begin an accounting, of sorts. An attempt in taking stock of where everything is at, as it were. My children are ending their school year (with one reaching their elementary school culmination before starting middle school come September) and beginning a break. Time marches on with its usual, inexorable manner, and attempting to hold back the tide is a study in futility for even attempting the endeavor. But, I do it anyway.
With that bit reasoning, here we are at the end of the month again. Time for the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I to execute another of our reviews in parallel. As is our modus operandi, the wordy one will look at a book well-known enough to later be adapted to the screen, which I will review. In this case, she’ll be looking at our first non-fiction book in the series, one that detailed some truly ugly real-life events. The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman’s Fight for Justice was published in January 2011. I’ll look at its film adaptation, which was released last summer with little fanfare. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: a divorced police officer, Kathryn Bolkovac, decides to take a job with a U.N. peace keeping action helping to settle and train law enforcement in post-war Bosnia. She’ll work for the U.K. company called Democra Security providing the services. Initially, the high pay six-month contract is the draw. Still, her skills as an experienced investigator leads to a promotion as head of the department for gender affairs. Yet, when she looks at wrongdoing involving young women at a local area club her investigation exposes sex trafficking. Her work and life suffers in the resulting upheaval. Primarily initiated with the discovery of young Ukrainian woman named Raya, who had recently been sold by her uncle into a forced prostitution ring, Kathryn finds a widespread corruption encompassing club ownership, the traffickers, and even those in your own peace-keeping force. The gist of the story is what happens when she attempts to bring the truth of what’s going on into the light.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“It’s not me. It’s policy.”
A couple of months back, Rachel first suggested this book/film combo as a possible title for our duo post series. I’d heard of it, but not much in the way of the details with the events covered. In the time since, by mere chance, I read/listened to two other works of non-fiction that turned out to be very much related. The first was Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow, and just recently The Year That Changed The World: The Untold Story of the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Michael Meyer. The first covered, in part, our country’s increased dependency of military contractors (specifically through the latter decades of the 20th century and tied to hefty Pentagon defense contracts) in places like Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. The second (the one I finished last weekend) detailed the seminal change in 1989 that brought about the byproduct depicted here, through the unshackling of Soviet control in eastern Europe that helped to unleash the historic ethnic hatreds. The result ended up as the charnel house that was Yugoslavia’s breakup.
“During your training you will see that peace is harder won than war. That every morning’s hope is haunted by yesterday’s nightmare.”
The Larysa Kondracki film is a gripping and unexpected work by a first time director. It is a bit of an ordeal, too. That’s not so much meant as a criticism rather that the subject it seeks to examine is one that’ll make most civilized human beings cringe. I mean, indentured servitude of the worst kind (forced prostitution and sexual physical abuse for the worst entertainment value imaginable) will have that effect on viewers. It did me. Kondracki’s treatment of Kathryn Bolkovac’s real life exposé, with the deft assistance of writer Cari Lynn, detailing the former Nebraska police officer and divorced mother of three unearthing this kind of human trafficking exploitation in the midst of a U.N. mercy mission, was properly sobering, no matter how you cut it.
It is a pity that this story, told as a fictional drama and a thriller, didn’t get much in exposure or play (besides some film festivals and human rights awards) beyond the limited release in the U.S. and Canada during the last year’s Summer movie season (Europe and Asia theatrical runs came later during the Fall). Carrying the label of “Inspired by true events.” is its own throttle, too. No wonder it got lost amid the typical fare during that time. As well, screenwriters Kondracki (doing double-duty) and Eilis Kirwan had to thread the needle in adapting the non-fiction book to the screen and thereby protect the
guilty innocent. Or, at least prevent the film’s backers from litigation. The U.S. based DynCorp International morphed into the U.K. company called Democra Security in this cinematic telling.
The film also benefited in having key characters portrayed by the likes of Rachel Weisz, as Kathryn Bolkovac, Vanessa Redgrave and David Strathairn. These performers never fail at giving their roles (large or small) good turns that made them at the very least memorable. I was kind of surprised to see the new BBC modern-day Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as Monica Bellucci showing up in brief but suspicious looking parts in this motion picture. Beyond that, what was also riveting in this production likely came as an offshoot of the limited budget that was pretty apparent in the movie. The Whistleblower had a distinct raw feel to it. Two scenes in particular, Rachel’s plea to Raya late in the film and the traffickers retaliation against the girls, were undeniably powerful enough the viewer could physically feel and retch along with those onscreen. Ultimately, it did add a quality that helped tell a true and rending story (at least under the veil of modern cinema intrigue).
“Ooh. Honey, it’s like I say, this is Bosnia. These people specialize in “fucked up”.”
There’s no getting around that this was a solid effort at translating a difficult, depressing account on to film. That it is dispiriting, even with a clever betrayal bit offered up at the end, which had a satisfying though hollow tinge to it, worked well enough at bringing an important message out. Even if this subject exerts itself against the notion that going to the movies is a relaxing diversion, it was hard to look at or look away from what ended up on the screen. The same budget limitations that brought a real rawness to the production, by sticking to real events, may have kept a number of performers marginalized here, however. As a viewer, I wanted more development of character beyond that of the central whistleblower. I mean, Liam Cunningham, a really charismatic actor, like Redgrave and Strathairn, wasn’t given much to do past the figurehead villain role. Barely enough to make you really pull for the good guys or hate the miscreants, IMO. Okay, I admit the same guy who portrayed the assh*le Gorman in Aliens as the HR guy in this, along with Vlad Ivanov as Tanjo, I wanted to strangle personally as I screened this.
The Whistleblower remains a very good, though not perfect, film. Certainly one that will piss off (in a righteous way) most that see it. Its fictionalized account of the scandal involving a major military contractor and others, something I suspect is still being tamped down to this day, made for a very competent and compelling thriller. Unquestionably, one with enough dread and atmosphere (the cold gray skies and landscape of Romania and Canada stood in too well for Bosnia) that never bored this viewer in its 112 minute runtime. It’s no surprise to most of us that those who expose the things groups, governments, corporations and PR firms want to remain hidden get shafted. And on a regular, continuing basis. That it also fills one with rage shouldn’t be a shocker, either. Moviegoers aren’t going to twiddle their thumbs while watching this, that’s for sure. They may squirm in their chairs, or get off the sofa from time-to-time with the excuse they need a bathroom break or something to drink in the vain hopes of getting away from the nagging thoughts Bolkovac’s tale offered, though.
Parallel Post Series
- Drive (book/audiobook review)
- The Big Sleep
- The Maltese Falcon
- Rosemary’s Baby
- The Hunt for Red October
- The Day of The Jackal
- Somewhere in Time (aka Bid Time Return)
- Starship Troopers
- Jurassic Park
- Free Fall
- Get Carter (aka Jack’s Return Home)
- Devil in a Blue Dress
- Angel Heart (aka Falling Angel)
- The Lathe of Heaven
- The Princess Bride
- A Scanner Darkly
- Children of Men
- Minority Report