Karen Martin’s Homemovies: War on Whistleblowers, Passion,The English Teacher, Kon-Tiki, Pain and Gain, and The Tailor of Panama

August 31, 2013

By Karen Martin
for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood, dirt & angels

War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State,

Directed by Robert Greenwald

(not rated, 66 minutes)

The aggressive prosecution of those who seek to correct wrongdoing in government by the Department of Justice on any grounds necessary is the subject of War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State.

This fast-paced, expertly researched and well-edited documentary by Robert Greenwald uses archival photographs, news video, on-camera interviews and re-enactments to present a none-too-pretty (and definitely one-sided) picture of the Bush and Obama administrations’ aggressive pursuit of those accused of violating secrecy and the resulting infringement of the freedom of the press.

The film, which has just enough material to flesh out its 66-minute running time, focuses on the fallout faced by Michael DeKort, Thomas Drake, Franz Gayl and Thomas Tamm— who went through proper channels in an attempt to expose corruption in the government or corporations working with the government. Then, in frustration at getting nowhere, they turned to the press.

The difference between being a whistle-blower and a leaker is well defined here, but both methods net the same dire result: the ruination of lives and careers for people who thought they were doing the right thing, and the effect on their families of the choices they make.

Interviews with the whistle-blowers — particularly Drake, a former NSA official who told a Baltimore Sun reporter of surveillance abuse and was subsequently charged with, among other things, violating the Espionage Act — present a story that is surreal in a country that supposedly demands transparency in government. Their stories are reinforced by comments of accountability and oversight experts including Tom Devine and Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, along with remarks by the most famous whistleblower of them all, Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame.

But the best moments in the documentary are the quietly authoritative voices of journalists including David Karr, Eric Lipton and Bill Keller of The New York Times, Tom Vanden Brook of USA Today, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Michael Isikoff of NBC News and Dana Priest of the Washington Post — a hardened bunch who, despite their experience with such matters, seem amazed and appalled at the stories they are covering.

Although the film resorts to frantically panning from one commentator to another to fill out the last few minutes, it redeems itself by letting the audience in on how the stories conclude for each of the whistleblowers.

Kon-Tiki (PG-13, 118 minutes) This is a methodical, well-crafted story of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdal (Pal Sverre Hagen). He, along with five other men, undertakes an amazing 4,300-mile crossing of the Pacific on a balsa wood raft in 1947 in an effort to prove it was possible for South Americans to settle in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. “Kon-Tiki is a wide-screen man-against-nature epic, beautifully shot and boasting seamless, stunning visual effects,” says critic Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Directed by Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg. In English, Norwegian, French and Swedish with subtitles.

Passion (R, 105 minutes) Passion isn’t one of 73-year old director Brian De Palma’s best films (those would be 1976’s Carrie, 1983’s Scarface, 1987’s The Untouchables, 1993’s Carlito’s Way and 1996’s Mission: Impossible), but it’s worth a few hours of your time. Based on Alain Corneau’s 2010 French thriller Crime d’amour, it’s the story of a power struggle between advertising agency boss Christine (Rachel McAdams) and her talented and initially naive protege Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) that goes beyond workplace competition into a game of seduction, manipulation, dominance and humiliation. Critics are divided in their opinions. “It will no doubt find its boosters,” says Jordan Hoffman on the website Film.com.

The English Teacher (R, 93 minutes) A modest little comedy, notable for its impressive cast, in which Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore), a 40-year-old high school English teacher in Kingston, Pa., decides to stage a dark, ambitious work by former student Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano) who washed out as a playwright in New York. It’s not Election with drama club members instead of politicians, but it has some pleasing moments, mostly whenever Moore is on the screen. With Nathan Lane, Greg Kinnear; directed by Craig Zisk.

Pain & Gain (R, 130 minutes) Using an article in Miami New Times as a springboard, Pain & Gain is a brutal black comedy that follows a group of 1990s-era personal trainers who undertake a campaign of kidnapping, extortion and murder in Florida. It’s directed by Michael Bay, which tells you it’s full of explosions, sleaze, vulgarity, loud music, women in thongs, and humor at the expense of the trainers’ victims. With Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Anthony Mackie.

The Tailor of Panama (R, 110 minutes) This elegant, intelligent and stimulating 2001 espionage satire based on a novel by John Le Carre, now available on Blu-ray, concerns a garrulous tailor in 1999 Panama (Geoffrey Rush) with a none-too-perfect past who, because of his connections to politicians and gangsters, becomes an unwilling spy for a corrupt, manipulative and immoral British agent (Pierce Brosnan, unlike you’ve ever seen him before). Not for the kiddies. With Jamie Lee Curtis, Daniel Radcliffe, Brendan Gleeson, Catherine McCormack; directed by John Boorman.

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