The Whistleblower in Film: Hero or Traitor?
There is no knowledge that is not power.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
While the Emerson quote has been paraphrased in different ways over the years, a universal truth remains that knowledge is indeed power. The more knowledge a person has, the more he or she is able to exploit it as a resource. Of course, the power directly correlates to the number of people the knowledge affects and how harmful it may be. In the case of whistleblowers, people who leak classified information that they are privy to, they are in incredibly powerful positions.
The Controversy of Whistleblowers
There are few positions as polarizing as whistleblowers and in the past several years with the likes of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, the media and the public have been challenged to take sides. While some have viewed whistleblowing as traitorous, others have viewed it as heroic, with even awards for their deeds.
The path of whistleblowers has been of interest to many, and films are no exception. The Fifth Estate and We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks have followed Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning with one of the largest breaches in national security. In matters of national security, the public is faced with a juxtaposition between governmental loyalty and an acknowledgement of misdoings.
While critique of the government may seem anti-patriotic, the system has lost many of the fail safes that were in place to ensure proper procedure. The NSA breach of private liberties lacked the transparency that some expect of the government. While Snowden’s actions remain controversial, there is a question of governmental dues and decorum in relations to the media and the public. The commentaries of The Fifth Estate and We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks explore the role of the necessity of transparency and the scope of governmental secrecy also apply to Edward Snowden’s case.
Individual whistleblowers’s moralities are imperative to determining an opinion on them. Many of them, Manning and Snowden included, have shown no remorse for their actions, and truly have self-justified them. However, with the subjectivity of individual morality, comes the questioning of their motives. Depending on morals, individual opinions of whistle-blowers can range anywhere from traitor to hero. Is it the government’s role to justify everything that they do, even in the name of national security? Should whistleblowers be punished or lauded? Does it vary on a case by case basis?
The Accountability of Documentaries
In the past several years, documentaries have found themselves in the precarious position of being both a mouthpiece for whistleblowers as well as whistleblowers themselves. Documentaries, however, are more faceless whistleblowers than individuals like Assange or Snowden. If properly done, the documentary allows the public to have a more objective view of the leaked material. By removing an individual with questionable morals and presenting evidence from which the viewer can draw a conclusion, documentaries have changed the way we get leaked information. In this manner they assume the roles of Snowden or Assange and transmute the controversial information.
Among the most popular documentaries of the past decade: Super Size Me, Food Inc., and the Invisible War, documentary filmmakers have taken it upon themselves to address the public with pressing public health concerns. Whereas critique of the government may seem contradictory to patriotism, critiques on institutions partially removed from the political spotlight seem to draw less ire.
With Super Size Me and Food Inc. focusing around the food monopolies and the FDA as well as The Invisible War discussing the Congress-acknowledged problem of sexual assault in the military, the critique is larger on subdivisions of the government or contracted companies. If any critique of the government is involved, it is more of inaction and individual corruption, instead of a duplicity on the larger part of the government. And perhaps these sorts of crimes, sexual assault and not informing people about what they are eating, are viewed as more universal sins. The difference may be more defined by both the illegality of the problems and the bodies that create them. It’s much easier to process a criminal food company than a criminal government.
A whistleblower values truth, but should the truth be told to everyone? In cases of needed widespread awareness like Erin Brockovich’s environmental crusade, almost everyone would agree. But when the truth is being hidden by a larger body, like the government, should the truth be told? There are boundaries and laws in place that whistleblowers have surpassed in feeling a need to share the truth with others. In this, they have the power.
The knowledge that they are privy to gives them power. Perhaps we should examine the motives for whistleblowing. While there are many people who believe that they are doing the right thing, there are also many who enjoy the celebrity of it. Julian Assange, perhaps, is among the most well-known whistleblowers, even more so that Chelsea Manning ever was. The films made about the WikiLeaks controversy portray him as a charismatic, egoistic character. While there may be altruistic beliefs under his persona, Assange has certainly not strayed away from the spotlight, going so far as making very public videos and continuing his critiques of governments.
By exposing the secrets, whistleblowers damage the working power hierarchy and cause questions to arise. In a variety of cases, the knowledge exposed creates a following who ask more questions, pressure for more answers and seek to expose a greater truth beyond the whistleblower’s initial claims. The secrecy of what is exposed seems to raise more questions and there is a conflict between desiring to learn more and trying to maintain the status quo. But the fact that they are subjects of numerous films and documentaries is not only a demonstration of our fascination with them, but also are inability on how to think of them. While Erin Brockovich is celebrated as a woman overcoming obstacles, Julian Assange is portrayed as egoistic and arrogant and in part because of the media and film portrayals, we are swayed on our own personal opinions of them.
While fictional films can take personal liberties in showing character flaws, as in The Fifth Estate with Assange, documentaries have the appearance of being much more objective. The documentaries showcase the facts and testimonies while constructing a narrative that nevertheless does push an agenda. These individual character flaws as well as the target of the leak end up biasing the public. Overall, though there is a certain lauding of their actions to act in opposition to the norm. While these films account for the multitude of reactions, there is an underlying admiration for their inquisitive and at times brave acts that juxtaposes our continued curiosity on the morality on their leak of information.
One of the significant differences between Erin Brockovich and The Fifth Estate is the nature of the secret they are revealing. Erin Brockovich’s is a matter of public health and safety which most viewers would not contend is of the utmost importance. The Fifth Estate, however, revolves around the leak of classified government information which is debatable of the importance to public health and safety. One of the most contended aspects about Snowden’s and Manning’s leaks is the nature of the secrets that they released. Though they showed evidence of government misdeeds that violate the Constitution, was this information critical for public well-being? While The Fifth Estate shows Julian Assange believes that the knowledge Manning has provided is important to be made public, critics of Assange and the film contest the importance and the potential risk of the classified information.
Though films, and media in general, attempt to portray themselves as unbiased, they reflect the post-9/11 America culture that has villainized whistleblowers and viewed them as treasonous. Instead of viewing Manning and Snowden as asserting their first amendment rights, which is how defenders justify their actions, the print media as well as film have examined motives and discussed reasons why they have acted in such manners. The answer is clear: they believe that what they were doing was morally right. While Manning has been treated inhumanely in prison and Snowden has sought asylum in Russia, they stand by their beliefs that their actions were justified.
In the culture of secrecy, with governments actions hidden from public viewing, though, whistleblowers continue to leak information that they view important. And so long as whistleblowers exist, our fascination and film coverage will persist as they walk the line between traitor and hero. They force us to revisit the role of government and empower us with classified information, and we are left to ponder what to do with it.
What do you think? Leave a comment.