Michael Mann’s “The Insider” plays like two films in one, linked by a common theme.
The first concerns Big Tobacco and the whistleblower who went on “60 Minutes” to expose some of its dirtiest secrets. The second is about the clash of journalistic ethics and the pressures that come from being one small cog in a multimedia corporate machine. Both ask and explore the question of why one does what he does, even with the potential for severe consequences.
It is an intensely personal film about a series of events with wide-ranging ramifications. Running more than 2½ hours, “The Insider” is long, especially for a film driven entirely by dialogue, yet it never feels so. Mann, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth, based on a Vanity Fair article (“The Man Who Knew Too Much” by Marie Brenner), approaches it as he would one of his thrillers, creating an uneasy tone and ratcheting up the suspense. Gunfights and explosions aren’t necessary; knowledge is the weapon here, and it makes Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) a very dangerous man to his former employer, the Brown & Williamson tobacco company.
Lowell Bergman’s (Al Pacino) power comes from his role as a producer at “60 Minutes,” the venerated CBS newsmagazine show. The sight of Bergman and Wigand together — and the possibility of Wigand making public his scientific knowledge of how Big Tobacco has added chemicals to cigarettes to increase nicotine’s effect on the human body — is enough for Brown & Williamson to level subtle and not-so-subtle threats against Wigand and his family, which includes two young daughters.
Wigand signed a confidentiality agreement when he was fired, and he’s hesitant to risk his generous severance package by violating it. Yet with Bergman’s prodding and encouragement, he does exactly that. Why? “I don’t like to be pushed around,” he tells Bergman. But there’s more to it. Wigand is a scientist, and after a career spent mostly in health care and pharmaceuticals, he chased the money by taking the job with Brown & Williamson. A guilty conscience can make a man do remarkable things.
It clearly has been eating away at Wigand, who’s a nervous, paranoid wreck, uncomfortable wherever he is, whether it’s meeting in secret with Bergman or at home with his family. It manifests in his ill-fitting suits, clipped speech and stooped posture, head tilted to the side as if he’s constantly trying to hide, especially when the cameras are on him. Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti emphasize all this with extreme closeups, sometimes placing the camera directly behind Crowe’s ear, because that’s as close as they can get to taking us literally inside his head.
Bergman, by contrast, is brimming with confidence. He’s the classic, romanticized version of the crusading journalist, crisscrossing the globe to seek the truth above all else. But perhaps he’s become too enamored with the prestige “60 Minutes,” cloaking himself in it so thickly that his entire world is shattered when CBS’ legal department warns the network is at risk of extreme legal action by Brown & Williamson should “60 Minutes” air Wigand’s interview and the head of CBS News subsequently refuses to broadcast it. Even staunch newsman Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) seems to back the decision.
In what might be his last truly great performance, Pacino starts small before ramping up his performance to classic Pacino-level ranting and raving to match Bergman’s increasingly desperate straits.
The movie shifts its focus as Bergman works to pave the way for CBS to air Wigand’s interview by refuting an extensive dossier Brown & Williamson releases to discredit its former employee. Sent on a forced vacation by CBS, Bergman begins to question his own motives for pursuing the story. When the interview finally airs, it’s vindication for both Bergman and Wigand, but far from the triumph it feels like it should have been. Bergman is disillusioned beyond the point of no return, and Wigand has lost his family. “What got broken here doesn’t go back together,” Bergman tells Wallace.
Released on Nov. 5, 1999, “The Insider” disappointed at the box office, grossing only $29.1 million in America with a worldwide total about $30 million below its $90 million budget. It was a critical success, however, rating 96% “fresh” on the Tomatometer and scoring seven Academy Award nominations — best picture, director, actor (Crowe), adapted screenplay, cinematography, film editing and sound. It was the first of three consecutive Oscar nods for Crowe, preceding “Gladiator” and “A Beautiful Mind,” and the one he should have won for. It felt like a bit of a makeup call a year later when he took home the gold statue for “Gladiator.” (When he was up for the award for “The Insider,” he lost to Kevin Spacey for “American Beauty,” a vote that looks even worse 20 years later.)
With journalists facing deadly threats at home and abroad, and shouts of “fake news” reverberating throughout society, “The Insider” remains relevant today. Though it was not in the manner of Bergman’s choosing, Wigand said his piece and ultimately helped lead to the tobacco companies settling a lawsuit for $246 billion. “The Insider” is a testament to the honest, diligent journalism that played a crucial role in making it happen.
Rated R for language. 157 minutes.
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