War is hell, but keeping the peace can be trickier. The clear-cut lines of who is the enemy and what it out of bounds blurs when the official fighting stops and, as in the former Yugoslavia, outsiders are sent in to keep the factions from continuing the hostilities. Such is the case of THE WHISTLEBLOWER, a film that that can and will rip the heart out of the audience.
Based on a true story, it begins with a disclaimer that some situations and characters are composites. It does nothing to soften the impact of the type and levels of corruption that Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) found when she signed on with a private contractor hired by the United States government to supply personnel to the U.N. peacekeeper force tasked with keeping the unsteady peace in the former Yugoslavia. A cop, and a good one, she didnt go as an idealist on a mission, she went for the money, $100,000 for six months work that would enable her rectify a sticky family situation. The job begins grimly, but Bolkovac, determined and tenacious, cuts through custom and inertia to get the first conviction for domestic abuse since the civil war started. It garners her an appointment as Chief of Gender Affairs, which leads in turn to her first-hand discovery of the human trafficking occurring with the collusion of the authorities. Specifically, young girls bought and sold by bar owners to service their customers. When Bolkovac follows procedure by actually following up on a raid on one of those bars, she discovers layer upon layer of not just corruption, but also of complicity that leads to unexpected and dangerous places as those making billions take notice of someone trying to interfere with their profits.
Shot in a hand-held, cinema-verite style with harsh close-ups that emphasize the chaos of the place, and the claustrophobic inertia of the situation, the story unfolds slowly, each bit of information about the trafficking delivering its own jolt as the case unfolds from Bolkovacs perspective, and she goes from brisk professional to outraged advocate whose newfound, and well-founded, sense of paranoia begins to extend even to her new boyfriend. First with a raid that seems almost routine, then Bolkovacs trip to a safe-house where the elderly caretaker explains in broken English and a flat voice what it is that her bruised and battered charges have gone through. The only surprise the old woman shows is that Bolkovac didnt know it was going on. Piece by piece, Bolkovac gathers evidence only to find an implacable barrier of human rights agencies more concerned with keeping the precarious balance of governance in place than assisting the victims. The barrier of her co-workers proves even worse, a masculine world that views her with suspicion, condescension, and frank derision. Director and co-writer Larysa Kondracki keeps the world around Bolkovac virtually all male, with the other women, the caretaker, the U.N. commissioner (Vanessa Redgrave) who gave Bolkovac her appointment, the impersonal human rights bureaucrat providing background and infuriating context. Interspersed, also for background and infuriating context, is the story of Raya, whose path will cross Bolkovacs during that first, fateful raid.
Weisz is a revelation. She never lets Bolkovacs essential toughness undercut her equally essential compassion. The rising feeling of tension in character and film form a perfect symbiosis until an explosive scene in which Bolkovac, having staged an unauthorized raid on a bar, begs a girl who is seconds and inches from safety to trust her one more time. In the anger, hope, desperation, and passion of the moment, Weisz channels lighting into a few minutes of screen time that are as powerful, as moving, and as dazzling as any actor has ever accomplished.
THE WHISTLEBLOWER plays like a sophisticated thriller, made all the more nerve-wracking for being emotionally true, if not factually so in every respect. The case is still entangled in legal mires that precludes the film, as well as anyone connected with it, from uttering the actual name of the contractor for whom Bolkovac worked. One is free drawn ones own conclusions about that state of affairs. Deliberately disturbing and infuriating, it brings into sharp, unflinching focus a situation that can be summed up in this way. A dead body can be returned, but a live person in demonstrable danger can be caught in an impersonal maze of paperwork and protocol that defies understanding by anyone outside the system, and left to his or her own devices.