Whistleblowers' Stories Head To The Big Screen

Aug 21, 2013
Originally published on August 20, 2013 5:13 pm

There’s a great deal of interest in the whistleblowers who have revealed details of American military and intelligence operations.

Bradley Manning is due to be sentenced after being convicted of 20 criminal counts for handing over secret U.S. documents to WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains in Ecuador’s embassy in London, and from Russia, Edward Snowden continues to embarrass the U.S. National Security Agency.

That fascination has also gripped the film world, as the BBC’s Tom Brook reports.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti in for Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains hold up in Ecuador's embassy in London, but his story will soon be told on the big screen. Some filmmakers are also interested in making a movie about Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker. The BBC's Tom Brook reports on the attraction of whistleblowers on film.


BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (as Julian Assange) One whistleblower. Someone willing to expose those secrets, that man could topple the most powerful and most repressive of regimes.

TOM BROOK: The voice of British actor Benedict Cumberbatch will soon be appearing on cinema screens as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a much-anticipated film called "The Fifth Estate." And before long, Edward Snowden's story could be on screen too. High-profile actors in the movie business like Peter Sarsgaard thinks the Hollywood studios will tell his tale.

PETER SARSGAARD: I'm sure they will because, you know, the whole locked in an airport thing and running around, it would turn into a kind of thriller, wouldn't it?

BROOK: The Australian director Phillip Noyce has stated he'd like to do a Snowden picture. The NSA leaker's story does have many of the necessary elements for what could be a gripping Hollywood film. Eric Kohn is chief film critic at Indiewire.

ERIC KOHN: This kind of drama pulls you in from the first page and keeps you gripped until the last one. And so far we have all the ingredients of a really exciting sort of international thriller. We've got the drama of this guy who has deep moral convictions and flees the very country that created those convictions because of his beliefs. We have the romance of this girlfriend on the other side of the globe and whether or not he's going to be able to be reunited with her at some point, and also the sort of profound philosophical questions about the intelligence that this man has uncovered and whether or not that was a valid thing to do and what sort of questions that opens up for us.

BROOK: Snowden has many supporters in Hollywood, among them Oscar-winning filmmaker Olive Stone, but not everyone in the film business is a Snowden fan. Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, a longtime supporter of liberal causes, isn't likely to be backing a film telling Snowden's story anytime soon.

HARVEY WEINSTEIN: I don't like what he did.

BROOK: Do you think it's a compelling story that would work as a film?

WEINSTEIN: I don't really care. I think it's despicable.

BROOK: What he did?



BROOK: But a short Snowden film has already been made in Hong Kong by four enterprising denizens. It's called "Verax," and it's a thriller inspired by Snowden's presence in Hong Kong, complete with an actor who resembles him.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) NSA contractor (unintelligible) Hawaii.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) What do we know?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Well, sir, he failed to report his travel plans in advance.

BROOK: But don't look for an ideological slant in this film. Shawn Tse is one of the filmmakers.

SHAWN TSE: We knew right from the get-go that this film was going to be as neutral as possible and in a way try not to infringe upon basically what we thought Snowden was trying to do, because really we had no idea.

BROOK: If Hollywood and America's documentary community do get around to telling Edward Snowden's story, many of his supporters on the political left hope the resultant narrative is different from what they claim is the unbalanced reporting on the Snowden affair by mainstream American journalism. That's the view of Professor Jeff Cohen at Ithaca College.

JEFF COHEN: There's no doubt that a Hollywood movie will tell the Edward Snowden story better than the U.S. news media have.

BROOK: In some respects, Edward Snowden's life already resembles a Hollywood movie.


STANLEY TUCCI: (as Frank Dixon) There's a man walking around the terminal in a bathrobe.

BROOK: In the 2004 drama "The Terminal," starring Tom Hanks, we see a character trapped inside an airport terminal for days. He's in a no-man's-land. It did reasonably well at the box-office. Now, of course, Snowden has left Moscow airport. His real-life story needs to come to some kind of conclusion before Hollywood can get going on its interpretation of his actions and his life.

CHAKRABARTI: The BBC's Tom Brook. And while we're on the subject of leaks, a new climate report has been leaked. That's up next. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.