Thursday, December 8, 2011

Musings on "The Whistle Blower"

It's always a pleasant surprise when separate spheres of one's own interests overlap. This happened for me the other night when I watched a British political thriller called The Whistle Blower which was suggested to me by that quasi entity known as Netflix based on a recent interest I've taken in a TV show called Burn Notice (A friend gave me some of the episodes to watch while in Afghanistan but under the mistaken notion that the USA network ceased long ago producing quality original programming I kept putting off trying the show out until a few weeks ago and now Burn Notice is quickly becoming one of my favorite TV shows. Bravo, USA Network).

I was about to ignore the suggestion when I noticed that the movie starred a favorite actor of mine, Sir Michael Caine. So I thought why not go ahead and give it a go. Forty-five minutes in I almost gave up on it because the pacing was excruciatingly slow (even by 80's film standards), Michael Caine was so far barely in it, and I was getting aggravated at how I perceived the plot to be unfolding, namely, toward the revelation of a secret cabal composed of elderly white men influencing and directing world affairs, a trite plot device of political thrillers used and abused many times over (A good exception was the unfortunately short lived AMC show, Rubicon, which gave that worn plot device a fresh and unique spin.). But I decided to give it a stay of execution and continued on.

I guess I should try to convey as best I can the plot. The movie (based on a book of the same name) is about Michael Caine's character, Frank Jones, a Royal Navy veteran who gets caught up in a potential government cover up relating to the possible existence of a top level Russian spy in the British government. Frank's son, a linguist who works for one of the British intelligence agencies, through a series of events including the mysterious deaths of two of his colleagues begins to suspect that the British government is sinisterly involved in some secret affair. He makes these concerns known to his father who doesn't take them seriously, believing his son's paranoia to be related to his voracious interest in spy novels and all things clandestine.

But then his son suddenly dies. The police rule it an unfortunate accident but given what his son had just expressed to him the day before about a possible government conspiracy Frank refuses to accept their conclusion. From then on the film centers on Frank's tortured quest to find out the truth about his son's death. And it was here that I became hooked, mostly because Caine's acting was, as usual, phenomenal, his anguish and determination compelling you to see how his quest ends. Eventually he does sort things out, learning that there is indeed a turncoat in the British government and that the government has been aware of this for some time. However, they have yet to act, deciding instead to take some time to assess the damage the spy has done. Furthermore, the British fear that the United States will find out about this and then refuse the British access to their CIA spy network, something the powers that be in Whitehall deem necessary for the national security of the country. And thus they have "dealt with" those who have come close to revealing the Russian spy, including Frank's son. In short, Frank's son was deemed expendable for reasons of national security.

It is with considerable angst that Frank uncovers this truth. Intriguingly, though, he seems to accept the necessity of his son's death, albeit with grave agony. Yet, what he founds unacceptable is that the government has, for the time being, decided to let the spy remain as he is. This Frank simply cannot abide and upon learning the identity of the traitor seeks him out in order to try and force a confession from him. But in addition to extracting a confession from the man, Frank wants to know why he betrayed his country. The spy explains that his actions were the result of a resentment he had been cultivating ever since WWII when the former British empire became a subordinate power to the United States and the Soviet Union, citing events such as the Suez Affair as a prime indicator of this new reality. Britain, he goes on to assert, is slowly being squeezed out by the two new superpowers. Furthermore, he views the United States as the bully who has been forcing British interests to fall in line with its own policy and so decided to cast his support to the Russians. Frank finds this explanation incredulous, prompting him to ask: "Well, why don't you just live in Russia then?" to which the turncoat has no reply. From there the movie ends the only way it can and since I don't want to divulge everything about the movie I'll cease here with the plot description.

This movie really surprised me and in a good way. It has to be one of the more realistic political thrillers that I have seen. Everything makes sense in it: from the actions of the lay characters to the motivations of the government officials. It is all quite sensible, especially the rational basis the traitor gives for why he decided to betray his own country. In short, the movie is, well, believable. A trait I think of the utmost importance for spy thrillers.

Ok, I know that's not a profound assessment of the value of this movie but it is true and rings true to me especially. This is because for the past several months I've been studying British history (specifically their side of the American Revolution) as well as Anglo-American relations since WWII. And so the actions and grievances of the major players in this movie is an interesting reflection of some of my current interests. In sum, my love of movies and my current research interests fortuitously overlapped in a most pleasant manner. And it's always a great joy to me when that happens. Thank you, Netflix, for the excellent suggestion. You chose....wisely.

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