A grim muckraking docudrama of sex trafficking in postwar Bosnia, The Whistleblower reaches a peak of dramatic anguish in star Rachel Weisz’s single moment of naked fury, rather than through the tenacity and compassion that define her crusading title character. As Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska cop who finds herself fighting a lonely campaign against the kidnapping and forced prostitution of girls and women when she contracts to be a United Nations-affiliated peacekeeper in 1999 Sarajevo, Weisz loses a chance to rescue a Ukrainian teen (Roxana Condurache) from her captors when the petrified victim refuses to leave the bar-cum-brothel that Bolkovac has raided, thoroughly intimidated by a smug, threatening paramilitary officer who icily glares at her from behind the would-be liberator. Tears rolling down her face as she whispers “Don’t look at him” to the nearly catatonic girl, Weisz’s Kathryn suddenly contorts in rage when a colleague intervenes to soften her defeat, lashing out with her fists and cursing at the square-jawed, menacing abuser, crystallizing the film’s loathing of its milieu’s culture of male sadism and institutionalized rape.
Unfortunately, first-time feature director Larysa Kondracki, co-author of the screenplay with Eilis Kirwan, otherwise displays a pedestrian aptitude for balancing the demands of a purported political thriller with the delicacy of dramatizing real-life atrocities. That Weisz’s adversaries are unambiguously villainous is inherent in the events of Bolkovac’s story (diplomats, Bosnian police, and multinational cops and contractors who engage in exploitation, torture, and murder, or cover it up), but the platoon of supporting actors who play them generally sneer cartoonishly, as with one rent-a-cop on the take from pimps who hisses that Bosnia “specializes in ‘fucked up.’” Vanessa Redgrave is on hand as a gender-rights watchdog in one of her mascot-of-international-conscience roles, and David Strathairn’s opaque manner gives his UN internal-affairs ally an overemphasized note of dubiousness.
Kondracki speaks in the film’s press notes of a determination to make the enslaved girls register as more than “abstract victims,” but given the usual emphasis on the American witness rather than the suffering ethnics, the abused chattel emerge as generic sacrificial lambs in script and performance. The Whistleblower raises questions, not so much of how these lamentable crimes were perpetrated under “peacekeeping” auspices, but if genre entertainment is always a suitable vessel through which such tragedies can be communicated to a mass audience.