Kathryn Bolkovac was a cop in Nebraska before she joined a private U.N. security force in post-war Bosnia, and that made all the difference. She was trained to fight crime, and she wasn't trained to let political interests guide which crimes she fought.
Even if pursuing certain criminals went against her own best interests.
Bolkovac is a real person and the film "The Whistleblower" is based on her experiences, starting in 1999, in confronting corruption and scandal on what turned out to be a global scale. That ring of authenticity paired with a standout performance by Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz raises "Whistleblower" far above the realm of typical do-gooder movies. The explosive subject matter keeps it there.
In brief, Bolkovac goes to Bosnia initially for the money -- $100,000 tax free for six months of "peacekeeping" work for an American company with a lucrative U.N. contract. (The real company was DynCorp; it goes unnamed here.) There aren't many women on the force, and she quickly carves out a place for herself as an advocate for Bosnian women still being brutalized, often by their domestic partners rather than wartime enemies.
Her actions draw the attention of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), who recruits her to a larger role investigating more widespread crimes against women.
Bolkovac demurs, saying she was "just doing my job" when she brought assailants to justice.
Rees, in a significant understatement, tells her, "You can't imagine how that makes you stand out."
Not long after, Bolkovac encounters two young women, victims of physical assault, who reveal that more girls and teens are being held against their will as prostitutes at a local watering hole. They are, in short, sex slaves.
First-time director Larysa Kondracki, who co-wrote the film, avoids any temptation to lay superpowers upon her heroine. When Bolkovac embarks on an investigation, she expects only to track down some local hoods and get the young women freed and sent back home.
She goes through appropriate channels, not realizing it will lead to an international scandal that could cost jobs, lives and -- this is where it gets tip-top attention -- billions of dollars in government contracts, and it takes her a while to connect the dots.
A Bosnian woman who aids the victims of the sex trade spells it out for her: "Half our men are dead, so who are these girls working for?"
The story takes an uneven turn into political thriller territory as Bolkovac refuses to turn a blind eye to the widening ring of corruption, even as it extends into her own ranks.
She's shut down and harassed, threatened and cajoled as her superiors try to get her to give up her case. Depending on your preferences, the film may embellish events too much for dramatic reasons (a late little plot twist feels gratuitous) or, for those who like more Bourne-like retribution in their conspiracy thrillers, stay too close to reality to deliver that last, visceral punch.
It has to be hard to get audiences to slap down cold cash to watch a movie about the sex trafficking of girls and young women in bombed-out Eastern Europe. (After all, in just a few days they can instead catch Weisz and her new husband, Daniel Craig, in the major Hollywood spook-fest "Dream House" -- you know someone will get what's coming to them in that one.)
The issue here is so horrifying and perhaps so unsolvable that it may only serve to make audiences feel helpless.
On the other hand, Bolkovac tried. And she was just a single-mom cop from Nebraska who refused to look the other way. All we have to do is cheer her on.
3 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Rachel Weisz, Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn, Anna Anissimova, Monica Bellucci
DIRECTOR: Larysa Kondracki
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
RATING: R for disturbing violent content, graphic nudity and language. In English and several Eastern European languages with subtitles.
THE LOWDOWN: An American takes on a sex trafficking operation of international scale.