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Whistleblower Movies

Whistleblower Movies

Whistleblower movies have been popular for decades. While not all whistleblower cases have the level of intrigue required to underlie a Hollywood script—and while most whistleblower cases are confidential—some truly are stranger than fiction. Of course, Hollywood screenwriters take liberties as well; and, when you add big-name actors like Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, and Marlon Brando into the mix, it’s not hard to see why whistleblower stories often capture the hearts and minds of moviegoers across the United States.

10 of the Most Well-Known Whistleblower Movies

As whistleblower lawyers, we are committed to helping whistleblowers come forward, and the vast majority of our clients’ stories and identities are never made known. But, we also like a good movie—and here are some of our favorites:

1. On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront is one of the earliest whistleblower movies to come out of Hollywood. Released in 1954, it stars Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, “a boxer-turned-longshoreman whose guilty conscience slowly turns him against the mob-connected union leader who rules the docks.”

The movie was nominated for 12 Oscars and won eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Director. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences calls Brando’s performance in On the Waterfront the one “that would define his career.”

2. Serpico (1973)

Released in 1973, Serpico tells the story of Frank Serpico, a former New York Police Department (NYPD) detective who exposed widespread corruption and mob ties within the police force. Al Pacino starred as Serpico in the eponymous film, and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor while the movie was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. Pacino lost out to Jack Lemmon for his leading role in Save the Tiger, with Serpico losing out to The Exorcist.

3. All the President’s Men (1976)

Released in 1976, All the President’s Men stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who exposed the infamous Watergate scandal. At the time, their source—known simply as “Deep Throat”—was still unknown, though W. Mark Felt would eventually reveal his identity during a Vanity Fair interview in 2005.

All the President’s Men was nominated for eight Academy awards, winning the awards for Best Supporting Actor (Jason Robards), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Production Design, and Best Sound Mixing. It remains one of the most well-known whistleblower movies to this day, and is widely regarded as one of the best movies in American cinematic history.

4. Silkwood (1983)

With a star-studded cast that included Cher, Kurt Russel, and Meryl Streep, Silkwood tells the story of whistleblower Karen Silkwood, who died in a car crash involving unusual circumstances after reporting her concerns about the safety practices at the nuclear facility where she worked. Among other things, her concerns arose out of a self-test which revealed that she had nearly 400 times the legal limit for plutonium contamination in her body. While Cher and Meryl Streep both received Oscar nods for their performances (and the movie received three additional nominations as well), Terms of Endearment would end up being the most awarded movie of the year.

5. The Insider (1999)

The Insider tells the story of Jeffrey Wigand, a former Vice President at Brown & Williamson who blew the whistle on the company’s efforts to hide its knowledge about tobacco’s addictive properties. Russel Crowe stars as Wigand alongside Al Pacino, who plays Lowell Bergman, the 60 Minutes producer who ultimately convinced Wigand to go public with his revelations. As summarized in an article published by the British Medical Association the year of the movie’s release, “[t]he drama revolves around Bergman’s efforts to persuade Wigand to speak publicly about Brown and Williamson’s knowledge of nicotine addiction, its manipulation of the drug, and its refusal to remove a carcinogenic substance from its pipe tobacco.”

Similar to Silkwood, The Insider was nominated for multiple Oscars but ultimately did not receive any awards. It lost out to several other modern classics, including American Beauty and The Matrix.

6. Erin Brockovich (2000)

Arguably the most well-known whistleblower movie of all time, Erin Brockovich stars Julia Roberts as the film’s title character. Erin Brockovich was a paralegal at Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) when she discovered that the company was contaminating the groundwater in Hinkley, California. Albert Finney stars alongside Roberts as Brockovich’s lawyer, Ed Masry, as they work together to expose PG&E’s wrongdoing. Roberts would win Best Actress for her starring role, while Finney would lose out in the Best Supporting Actor category to Benecio Del Toro for his memorable role in Traffic.

Erin Brockovich was a box office hit, making it one of the most successful whistleblower movies in history. It was the most popular movie in the United States for multiple weeks following its theater release, and to date it has grossed more than a quarter billion dollars worldwide.

7. The Constant Gardener (2005)

The Constant Gardener, starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, is reportedly loosely based on the story of a British diplomat in Kenya who exposes Pfizer’s testing of its meningitis drug, Trovan, on young children. While questions have been raised about the true relationship between the movie and the real-life Trovan case, the movie nonetheless helped to shed light on Pfizer’s unlawful practices. Weisz received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her compelling performance in the film.

8. Michael Clayton (2007)

Proving Hollywood’s interest in the whistleblower genre, Michael Clayton was one of the first major whistleblower movies not to be based (or even arguably based) on a true story. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, who is also responsible for the Jason Bourne series, Michael Clayton is an espionage thriller that stars George Clooney as the title character alongside Tilda Swinton. Swinton won Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film while Clooney lost out the Best Leading Actor award to Daniel Day-Lewis for his role in There Will Be Blood. Both movies received nominations for Best Picture but fell short behind No Country for Old Men.

9. The Informant! (2009)

Getting back to whistleblower movies based on real-life events, The Informant! Stars Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, an executive at Archer Daniels Midland Co. in Decatur, Illinois. Whitacre exposed the company’s involvement in the largest-ever price-fixing case—which would ultimately result in the company paying $100 million to the federal government.

What made the case even more appealing for Hollywood, however, was Whitacre’s own criminal activity. While wearing a wire for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for three years, Whitacre embezzled $9 million from Archer Daniels Midland. He served nine years in prison following his conviction—even though no one else at the company served more than 30 months for facilitating the company’s multinational price-fixing scheme.

10. Official Secrets (2019)

Released in 2019, Official Secrets tells the story of whistleblower Katharine Gun. The movie follows Gun as she exposes an illegal spying and blackmailing operation conducted by the American and British intelligence agencies. Gun’s story was also the subject of the book, The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War; and, since the release of Official Secrets, she has continued to tell her story in the media.

In the movie, Gun is played by Kiera Knightley. While the film did not receive any nominations from the Academy, it did receive several international nominations and awards, including the 2020 Cinema for Peace Award for Political Film of the Year.

Many More Whistleblowers’ Stories Go Untold

While these are far from the only whistleblower-focused movies released in the United States and abroad, even the full list of whistleblower movies only tells a tiny fraction of the stories that are out there. Every year, numerous whistleblowers come forward and expose fraud, waste, abuse, and other wrongs committed by companies, company executives and board members, government entities, and government officials. Whistleblowers play a key role in protecting taxpayer dollars and the American public at large, and they are truly the unsung heroes of our society.

Most whistleblowers choose to remain anonymous. While some come forward publicly and have their stories turned into movies, far more prefer to protect their confidentiality and stay out of the limelight. Federal laws entitle whistleblowers to confidentiality, and federal agencies will do everything they can to protect whistleblowers’ identities in most cases. Whistleblowers’ attorneys can help to preserve their confidentiality as well—in addition to assisting with the government’s investigation and ensuring that whistleblowers receive the other protections to which they are legally entitled.

Speak with a Whistleblower Lawyer at Oberheiden P.C.

At Oberheiden P.C., we represent whistleblowers nationwide and around the world. If you need to blow the whistle—or if you need to know more about serving as a federal whistleblower—we invite you to get in touch. To speak with one of our senior whistleblower lawyers for free, please call 888-680-1745 or tell us how we can reach you online. All information you share with our lawyers will be held in strict confidence.

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