Forty-two years ago, President Richard Nixon resigned following the release of tapes linking him to the cover-up of the Watergate scandal, and American cinema has been dealing with the psychological consequences ever since. Indeed, Oliver Stone’s Snowden, which came out this September, is not an isolated story, but the most recent installment in a larger conversation about the corrupting nature of power in our democracy. From the noir chronicles of conspiracy in the immediate aftermath of the seventies, to the post-9/11 paeans to rogue lawyers and hackers, whistleblower films have reflected back to audiences their own fears of an unknowable government or corporate power observing and controlling their lives.
A whistleblower film, fraught with paranoia and anxiety, is the anti-Eighties Movie. Before Americans put Watergate and the Kennedy assassination out of their mind in favor of the pollyannaish portraits of society in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink, Alan J. Pakula directed All the President’s Men in 1976. Addressing the immediate concern, All the President’s Men follows a band of plucky, principled journalists at the Washington Post in the aftermath of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and traces the early days of the investigation. The film ends with Nixon’s inaugural address blaring from a TV in the foreground, while the good guys type madly away on typewriters in the back. The message here is plain and optimistic: the good guys will prevail.
Whistleblower films depend on good guys to serve as the audience’s conscience, the ones who will deliver some form of catharsis from the artificiality and the distrust. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein walk from bohemian apartments into bureaucrats’ living rooms with figurative halos over their heads, talking about the Constitution and the future of the union. We are meant to root for the Washington Post and the ghostly ‘Deep Throat’ leaking information to them, and against the FBI and the politicians who are shown to be phonies, even the president. The film taps into the fear of living in a country that prides itself on high ideals, but that witnesses those who hold the highest positions of power— CEOs, the police, the president — too often fall woefully short.
The seventies were the first time Americans had to acknowledge these failures. At the height of the Cold War, people were made to believe that our enemies would be abroad, our own government valiantly crusading on our behalf against the Soviets. No one wanted to believe we could have enemies here at home too. But fundamental distrust of government persisted, so the whistleblowers we imagined in film went on to reflect whatever current anxiety the public had on their mind. The Insider (1999), based off an actual 60 Minutes report, follows a whistleblower in the tobacco industry, and mirrors an intense distrust of corporations in the zeitgeist. Michael Clayton (2007), a legal drama centering on a cover-up of the poisoning of a Midwestern town, is similarly symptomatic, and in retrospect bears a remarkable resemblance to the recent events in Flint, Michigan. The idealism of whistleblower cinema past is often replaced in the modern era with films like these, cynical meditations on unchecked greed and the sleazy world of elites.
As our faith in powerful institutions falters, more and more of the fictional plots we dream up turn out to be true. Back in 2012 HBO’s The Newsroom featured a subplot in which an NSA whistleblower leaked evidence of warrantless wiretapping, and in 2013…well…you get the idea. Snowden (2016) proves that the paranoia thriller is not going anywhere, and for good reason. Snowden has a scary amount in common with the whistleblower films of the Seventies: The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald echoes the Post’s Bob Woodward in the role of impassioned journalist talking about high ideals (Mr. Snowden does plenty of this as well), and the ubiquity of shadowy figures and hushed voices remains, as does the unmistakable sense of constantly being monitored. The main difference, of course, is the new heights of technology employed by those portrayed as corrupt, and with these heights the reminder that surveillance is likely only going to become more common -- and more invisible -- going forward.
It remains unclear whether the damage molded into the culture by Watergate will ever dissipate, or if there will ever stop being a nagging sense that something is going on behind closed doors without us, the citizens. But when we cannot see the next great, amorphous conspiracy, we need to imagine it.
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