Panel discussion after world premiere. Barton Gellman (left), James Spione (middle left), Jesselyn Radack (middle right) and Thomas Drake (right)

During President Barack Obama’s presidency, a record number of government employees have been prosecuted for leaking or blowing the whistle. Several of them have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law that was intended to be used against spies and not for punishing people who disclose information without authorization. Simultaneously, the amount of information being kept secret by the government has increased exponentially, as the national security state’s tentacles reach out establishing more control in the United States.

Silenced brings viewers into this world.

Directed by James Spione, it tells the personal stories of three whistleblowers—former NSA employee Thomas Drake, former Justice Department employee Jesselyn Radack and former CIA officer John Kiriakou. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 19. (It will screen one more time at 2:30 pm on April 24 and then will be screened at other festivals later this year.)

Drake blew the whistle on NSA surveillance and what the government should have known prior to 9/11. Radack blew the whistle on how John Walker Lindh (“American Taliban”) was being treated when she uncovered evidence that the Justice Department was trying to conceal how it had violated his due process rights. Kiriakou blew the whistle when he said on ABC News in 2007 that waterboarding was torture and it was part of Bush administration policy.

The thread that runs throughout the film is Kiriakou’s case. He is the main character because his case is unfolding in real time. Radack and Drake are supporting characters, who provide support to Kiriakou because they have had similar experiences.

Kiriakou needs a favorable decision from the judge so that he can be confident he will be able to defend himself at trial. The struggle his wife and children are going through is shown on screen in scenes at home. When his daughter cries as she gets hurt playing in a tree, it puts an emotional exclamation point on the anguish the family is experiencing and will have to live with as he goes off to prison.

According to Spione, in the middle of the film, he sought to combine the “emotional arcs of all of their experiences” so people could understand the merciless nature of the government. How they ensured it would be difficult for Drake and Radack to find work after they tried to hold the government accountable is presented in vivid detail. It shows the personal toll it took on family, including instances where permanent scars were left that would take a long time to heal (if they ever managed to heal).

Their commitment to the truth frees them. In the same way that they had faith that revealing corruption would make it possible for the public to hold the government accountable, they appear to believe that opening up and describing intimate aspects of their struggle, no matter how difficult it might be for them, will be of great benefit to audiences. 

The crucial role of media in these cases is given attention as well. For Drake, he says it was a “saving grace.” Part of what contributed to his case collapsing was the coverage from “60 Minutes,” an editorial from the Washington Post against his prosecution and a feature story in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer. (That story is a major part of how Spione discovered what was happening to him.)

However, in the case of Kiriakou, the media mostly shied away from the whistleblower label. Spione followed him to “The Today Show” after he was sentenced in January 2013. Savannah Guthrie interviewed him for the show, and many of her questions seemed to come straight from a government prosecutor.

The full interview is online, but, since Spione was granted access to bring a camera into the studio while the interview was happening, he was able to capture the aggressive nature of Guthrie’s interview right up to where she whispers, “Take care,” just after grilling Kiriakou on television.

It appropriately raises the question: Is it really the job of a media anchor to litigate the government’s case or should she have had someone from the Justice Department on the show if this is really what she wanted to talk about? Because in this moment when Kiriakou had rare access to the court of public opinion, the scene in the film shows Guthrie seriously impeded his effort to argue he was a whistleblower and convince citizens that he should be pardoned.

Spione had long conversations with his characters before shooting the film. He read books that clued him into questions that needed to be asked in order to produce those powerful moments that manifest themselves in the interviews. As a result, he succeeds in drawing the audience into the lives of these whistleblowers and, as he said, demonstrates they are “not just drones” who worked in government but “thinking, breathing intelligent people” with families and children.

Actors were used to reenact their stories because he believed that stylizing some of the film like a political thriller or film noir would help make the film more accessible to audiences. It was, as he described, a part of a “collage of styles” that also included on-camera interviews, a traditional documentary filmmaking approach (being there as events unfolded) and archival footage and stills.

At the world premiere, Spione had the first opportunity to get feedback and opinions from people who were not from the small team that had been working on the film. It was so quiet that he thought one could hear a pin drop, which made him wonder if audiences were bored. He soon realized that he could hear sniffles and crying. People were incredibly involved in the stories being told and he was pleased.

Each of the whistleblowers are wonderful human beings, who I have had the privilege of getting to know through my work covering whistleblower stories for Firedoglake. There was much in this film that I had not learned about them. More importantly, I had not fully grasped the price they paid on a professional and personal level as the government zealously tormented them for daring to stray from the groupthink within the national security state that took hold post-9/11.

Firedoglake has supported Kiriakou while he has been in prison, publishing his “Letters from Loretto.” His wife, Heather, read a statement from Kiriakou at the premiere. He said the release of the film was “empowering and comforting” as he sat in prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania. “The worst part of this ordeal has been my separation from Heather and our children and the toll that it has taken on them.”

It may be sad and heartbreaking to be confronted with the acts of malice they have endured, but it is critical that the public bear witness to what the government is doing to people like Drake, Kiriakou and Radack. Only by fully understanding the risks government employees are taking can the public recognize the importance of welcoming these people when they come forward.

When much of America’s system of checks and balances seem beyond repair, the last best hope is government employees on the inside willing to risk it all and become whistleblowers so we can know truths about policies and programs officials would prefer remain secret.