The Insider: In Print (Reviews)
In recent weeks, a small but significant group of films have been released in Australia under the banners of large Hollywood companies which are significantly different from the norm.
I'm thinking of Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, Snow Falling On Cedars and American Beauty - four films that have something to say, and say it with a freshness and an adventurousness that makes them more than usually pleasurable experiences. Interestingly, two of the four were directed by non-Americans (Snow Falling by Australian Scott Hicks, American Beauty by Brit Sam Mendes), two are first-time directors (Mendes and Spike Jonze), and one, David O. Russell (Three Kings), previously made only independent films. None of them belong to the Hollywood studio system.
Now we can add The Insider to this distinguished company and, in some ways, this is the most remarkable of the bunch, certainly in terms of the boldness with which it tackles an extraordinary subject of great public interest.
It was made by a Hollywood insider, Michael Mann, a very proficient director of thrillers (Manhunter, Heat) and adventure films (The Last Of The Mohicans), and it was produced by Touchstone, one of the Walt Disney family of companies. Yet The Insider, as everyone surely knows by now, is a tribute to Jeffrey Wigand, the man who blew the whistle on the tobacco industry.
Wigand (Russell Crowe) was a central witness in the lawsuits filed by Mississippi and the 49 other states against seven tobacco companies, who eventually settled for a $US246 billion payment, at the same time displaying more red faces than SOCOG.
The unlikely whistleblower was a scientist, former head of research and development at Brown&Williamson, the US's third-largest cigarette manufacturer. After he gave his celebrated interview to the US edition of 60 Minutes he was subjected to a smear campaign, as well as being sued. His marriage fell apart, his life was ruined and, the film implies, he received threats into the bargain.
The Insider, written by Michael Mann and Eric Roth, was based on the Vanity Fair article, The Man Who Knew Too Much by Marie Brenner. It is not only Wigand's story, however: it is just as much the story of Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), the 60 Minutes producer who stumbled upon Wigand almost by chance, persuaded him to tell his story and arranged for frontman Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) to tape the interview.
Bergman was a radical, a child of the 1960s, who once wrote for the anti-establishment Ramparts magazine. In his urging of Wigand to tell his story, he seems to be following his own agenda. But the inference is that 60 Minutes, and the CBS network, will unreservedly back their witness - then, in one of the film's truly devastating sequences, this proves to be not the case.
Pacino, who worked with Mann on Heat, is the ideal choice to play Bergman, and gives a fine performance in the role. Less obvious casting is that of Crowe as Wigand. Made up to look several years older, and again convincingly adopting an American accent, the Australian actor would still have been a very long shot for the role and it is very much to his personal credit, and to Mann's, that he pulls it off so brilliantly that he is in the running for an Oscar.
As you will have gathered, the story told by The Insider is dynamite, and that story is superbly told, both on a personal and social level. Smokers should recoil in horror from the facts revealed in Wigand's testimony but we can all relate to the terrible dilemma facing this basically honest and decent man. The effect his honesty and decency has on his life is persuasively, harrowingly, depicted.
In support of the towering performances of Crowe and Pacino there is a gallery of fine secondary players, including Michael Gambon as the malevolent boss of Brown&Williamson, Philip Baker Hall as the producer of 60 Minutes, Diane Venora as Wigand's troubled wife and, above all, Plummer as the smooth, avuncular Wallace whose role in the affair is tantalisingly ambiguous.
Unfortunately, the film has a fairly serious flaw, one that is all too common these days. Presumably because he is telling a purportedly true story, Mann - usually a consummate film craftsman - and his cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, have given the film the dreaded handheld camera look, the mock documentary effect which achieves nothing, certainly not a documentary effect, because we know we are watching a fiction film. In fact, the only tangible result, especially when used in close-up and in the widescreen format, is potential audience nausea. Unnecessarily tricky focus-pulling is another regrettable visual affectation.
These miscalculations apart, The Insider is an important, provocative and immensely accomplished piece of work.
‘THE INSIDER’: MOURNFUL ECHOES OF A WHISTLE-BLOWER
Late in “The Insider” the tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand sits despondently in a hotel room and contemplates the steep price of what he has done. The setting is somber except for the bright pastoral mural on the wall behind him, looking like a window onto an unsullied, unattainable world. Then the image begins to roil and morph, and it turns into a vision of the home and family that Wigand has lost. This is a flashy visual effect, but it’s also one that piercingly captures the man’s state of mind. And although Michael Mann is a filmmaker whose stylistic brio has a way of overpowering his subject matter, this time he strikes a balance, and he gets it right.
Mann has directed “The Insider” with a pulse-quickening panache that heightens the tensions within its story. In describing Wigand’s progress from a staid corporate existence into a risky and unpredictable one, the film entails both visual and moral vertigo. Once Hollywood had a favorite folk tale: that the lone truth teller battling political or corporate evil would triumph, however bitterly, when the facts became known. But in the chillingly contemporary world of “The Insider” it’s not that simple. Almost every character in the story is compromised by business considerations. And in the film’s vision of television news reporting, moral relativism is a big part of playing the game.
The film centers on CBS’ “60 Minutes” and does the kind of muckraking that would ordinarily be that program’s own province. The connection between CBS and Wigand’s revelations — that the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. knew that cigarette smoking was addictive even as it sought new ways to make nicotine deliver even more of a kick — is a producer named Lowell Bergman.
In the film Bergman keeps a portrait of Cesar Chavez on display, mentions that Herbert Marcuse was his mentor (“major influence on the New Left in the 1960s”) and otherwise calls attention to his political credentials. “How did a radical journalist from Ramparts magazine wind up at CBS?” he is asked. He replies modestly: “I still do the tough stories. ‘60 Minutes’ reaches a lot of people.”
The film’s casting stacks the deck to lionize Bergman, even while that casting also makes for dramatic fireworks. Christopher Plummer does an acute Mike Wallace impersonation, summoning all the mannerisms familiar to television audiences, including Wallace’s canny way of listening. And Russell Crowe, a subtle powerhouse in his wrenching evocation of Wigand, takes on the thick, stolid look of the man he portrays.
On the other hand, Bergman is glamorized into a crusading Al Pacino and becomes the only beacon of rectitude to be found here. But “The Insider” is a movie about shadows, not absolutes. And it would have reached deeper if its Bergman weren’t so self-righteous a hero.
“The Insider,” as written by Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”) and Mann, suspensefully lays out the facts of its story. It begins as Wigand surreptitiously reveals what he has learned as a chemist for Brown & Williamson: its cigarettes are designed to deliver an extra-quick fix of nicotine despite obvious health risks. Sensing that Wigand may be a loose cannon, the company’s chief executive (played commandingly by Michael Gambon) binds Wigand to a strict confidentiality agreement.
But as the pressure on him begins to mount, Wigand finds his situation becoming intolerable. “Can you imagine,” he asks Diane Venora, as the wife who will soon be walking out on him, “me coming home from some job and feeling good at the end of the day?”
Along comes “60 Minutes,” with promises to give Wigand’s charges a public airing, but with too much corporate baggage to let that happen. “The Insider” offers an account of how the program wound up sidestepping the confidentiality agreement to interview Wigand and exposing him to threats of retaliation, only to bail out on running the interview when it ran afoul of CBS’s larger interests. What emerge as controversial here are not the facts themselves but the ways in which “The Insider” uses docudrama ethics to draw its close-up views of CBS’s inner workings.
The movie is about telling the truth, and yet at times it seems manipulative itself, as when it presents Wallace confessing his innermost thoughts about his career and reputation. This venerable television star could have been captured just as fully in the scene that finds him venting outrage at Gina Gershon’s smooth corporate lawyer. “Mike?” he thunders when she addresses him. “Mike? Try Wallace.”
“The Insider” is still sleek, gripping entertainment with a raw-nerved, changeable camera style that helps to amplify its meaning. So what if, when Bergman finds himself feeling betrayed and alone, he happens to be standing in the turquoise waters of some tropical hideaway? And so what if when the Wigand story pushes him to the edge, the film visualizes this picturesquely as the Gulf Coast of Mississippi?
There are stunningly evocative images here, like perilous nighttime scenes at a golf driving range and in the Wigand backyard, with dramatic meaning only heightened by their obvious beauty. This is the kind of movie in which Bergman can make a phone call and reach somebody who happens to be in the cockpit of a Lear Jet. Thanks to the dazzling cinematography of Dante Spinotti (whose other Mann films include “Heat” and “The Last of the Mohicans”) visual interest is not a problem.
“The Insider,” by far Mann’s most fully realized and enthralling work, features brief, sharply-etched performances from Bruce McGill as a Mississippi prosecutor raging in a courtroom, Lindsay Crouse as Bergman’s wife and Philip Baker Hall as the “60 Minutes” executive who labels Bergman an anarchist and a fanatic. Each of these characters contributes memorably to the film’s troubling resolution and to Bergman’s verdict on the emblematic crisis within “The Insider.” As he puts it regretfully, “What got broken here doesn’t go back together again.”
Smoke and Mirrors
HOLLYWOOD — Unlikely material can inspire exceptional films: witness "The Insider.” What could sound less promising than the legal fuss surrounding one man’s indecision about telling what he knows about cigarettes, unless it’s the internal wranglings of a television network’s news division? But it is the triumph of this Michael Mann-directed film that those iffy scenarios result in a compelling drama, as notable for the importance of what it has to say as for the riveting skill with which it’s said.
Mann’s involvement, as co-screenwriter (with Eric Roth) as well as director, is the tip-off that something is afoot. As his credits ("Heat," "Thief," "The Last of the Mohicans," TV’s "Miami Vice") indicate and this film underlines, Mann practically mainlines intensity, and he uses his instinct for dramatic storytelling to fill every bit of this two-hour, 38-minute film with passion and tension.
In fact the argument could be made that Mann’s career has been preparation for telling the based-on-fact parallel stories of Jeffrey Wigand, arguably the most significant anti-smoking source to come from the heart of Big Tobacco and one of the keys to a recent $246-billion settlement against the industry, and Lowell Bergman, the "60 Minutes” producer who fought to get his story on the air. Not only is "The Insider” fiercely directed, not only does it have memorable starring performances from Al Pacino and the marvelous Russell Crowe, but it has a tale to tell that is both substantial and significant.
For as much as anything else, "The Insider” is a paradigmatic slice of 20th century America, a look at who we are and at what drives us as individuals and a society. It’s a scathing attack on the power of serious money and the chilling effect corporate might can have on the ability to disseminate the truth.
At its core, however, "The Insider” is a story of, as someone says, "ordinary people under extraordinary pressure.” It shows how difficult and torturous it can be to do the right thing on an individual level and, most important, what bravery actually means and how little the faces and personalities of heroes fit our often simplistic preconceptions.
To tell this story, screenwriters Roth (an Oscar winner for "Forest Gump”) and Mann, working from Marie Brenner’s excellent Vanity Fair piece, have made considerable and unapologetic use of dramatic license. Hardly a documentary (and even they manipulate), "The Insider” uses real names but does not hesitate to embellish or fictionalize situations when it suits its purposes, which include greatly enhancing Bergman’s role in events to build him into more of a conventional hero. But peripheral fabrications not withstanding, the core story the film tells, the issues it raises, remain dead-on accurate.
"The Insider” starts in the most unlikely place, an unidentified Middle Eastern city where a man is being blindfolded for a meeting with a leader of the terrorist Hezbollah organization. The man is Bergman (Pacino), a producer for “60 Minutes,” and when the sheik in question asks why he should agree to an interview with the "pro-Zionist American media,” Bergman unhesitatingly replies, "Because it’s the highest-rated, most respected television newsmagazine in America.”
That opening establishes several crucial points, not the least of which is Bergman’s loyalty to and belief in 60 Minutes” and its mainstay Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), whose producer and alter ego he’s been for 14 years. It also shows Bergman as the pragmatic go-to guy, the producer-as-fixer adept at convincing even the most reluctant subjects to come forward and talk.
An operative both within and against the system — a role that in some ways echoes the actor’s earlier work in "Serpico” — Bergman is one of Pacino’s best, most alive characterizations. It allows him to be natural and powerful, to hold the screen and convince us of someone’s sincerity without resorting to mannerisms or well-worn tricks.
Able to match him stride for stride is the virtuoso Australian actor Crowe. Known to art-house viewers for his award-winning roles in that country’s "Proof” and "Romper Stomper,” Crowe’s ability to project internal complexity electrified a wider audience as the love of Kim Basinger’s life in "L.A. Confidential.” A powerhouse actor who joins an old-fashioned masculine presence with an unnerving ability to completely disappear inside a role, Crowe not only has made himself look like Wigand, he even duplicates the complex personality journalist Brenner described as "prickly, isolated and fragile.... There’s a wary quality in his face, a mysterious darkness."
When Wigand is introduced on a sunny afternoon in 1993, he and Bergman are not even aware of each other’s existence. It’s not a good day for the pin-striped scientist, head of research and development for Brown & Williamson, one of the biggest tobacco companies. He’s just been fired, in part, we eventually learn, for objecting to measures the company wants to take to make its products more addictive.
With a comfortable lifestyle, a Southern belle wife (Diane Venora) and two children, one of whom has expensive medical problems, Wigand is not eager to jeopardize his B&W settlement or the health insurance that comes with it. Prodded by company president Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon), he signs a pair of confidentiality agreements, but though he doesn’t necessarily look it, Wigand is a person who does not respond well to being pushed around. There is an unexpected fury in him, a rigid core that cannot be quashed or ignored, a core that Bergman will come to both fear and admire.
At work on a different tobacco story, one having to do with fire safety and smoking in bed, Bergman receives an anonymous box of tobacco company documents that he needs "translated into English.” A colleague gives him Wigand’s name, but when Bergman calls the scientist at home for this simple task, the unexpected resistance Wigand puts up is a goad to the producer’s savvy instincts.
Though he has no real idea who Wigand is and not even a clue about what the man knows, Bergman, like a bull facing a cape, can’t resist charging. And the more Wigand demurs from talking, the more Bergman increases the pressure, especially after he learns who this difficult, elusive man is and what he knows about the cigarette industry’s willingness to lie about its product’s effects. "He’s the ultimate insider,” the producer says. "He’s got something to say and I want it on '60 Minutes.'"
The extended cat and mouse interplay between journalist and source is one of "The Insider’s” most involving dynamics. An elaborate ritual dance of courtship, a seduction pure and not so simple, it pits Bergman’s insistence that he can be trusted ("When I talk to people in confidence, it stays that way”) and Wigand’s fears about his settlement and whether what he does will make any kind of a difference.
"I’m a commodity to you,” he says. "Thirty million people will hear you,” Bergman replies, unfazed, "and nothing will ever be the same again.”
While this elaborate scenario is being played out, the tenor of Wigand’s life changes in ways that ups the ante on his decision. He hears intruders in his backyard, he’s followed, he finds threatening messages on his computer, he finds a bullet in his mailbox. He’s supposed to be scared, but what he gets instead is angry. (The Times reported last week that Brown & Williamson, which has a history of attacking Wigand, claims the scientist manufactured his death threats. A federal law enforcement official said the evidence either way was not conclusive.)
Alternately closed-off and furious, needy and suspicious, with his marriage now in trouble, the tightly wound Wigand finds himself drawing closer to Bergman as he comes to terms with what seems like a compulsion to come clean. If he decides to talk, finally, it will be because he cannot imagine not doing so.
Compelling as this is, "The Insider” has two more dramas to play out. One is whether or not Wigand will testify in the Mississippi-led multi-state case against the tobacco industry (one of the areas where Bergman’s influence has apparently been exaggerated) and the other is the crisis at CBS.
Led by an attorney (an appropriately slick Gina Gershon) worried about something called tortious interference” and the remote possibility of a massive lawsuit, CBS corporate strong arms its news department in general and 60 Minutes” in particular not to air the Wigand segment. How much and when Wallace resisted this edict has become a major bone of contention between the journalist and the filmmakers, but of one thing there is no doubt: What happened at “60 Minutes” was a major debacle. (The New York Times calls it "one of the low points in the history of CBS News.”)
Even if you know every detail of this much-reported situation, it can’t overemphasize how effectively Mann and company have ratcheted up the tension to involve us in the immediacy of the Wigand/"60 Minutes” story, to emphasize the chaotic personal dynamics, the battle of wills, that lurked behind all the headlines.
Shot with exceptional crispness by Dante Spinoti (who also did "L.A. Confidential") and energetically edited by William Goldenberg, Paul Rubell and David Rosenbloom, "The Insider” also benefits from Mann’s passionate attention to detail. The strong, atmospheric score is by former Dead Can Dance mainstay Lisa Gerrard and her new writing partner Pieter Bourke (with a notable contribution by Gustavo Santaolalla on the Argentine mandolin), and even relatively small roles, like Lindsay Crouse as Bergman’s wife and Bruce McGill’s firebrand Mississippi attorney, are smartly cast.
"To get the truth out has been such an effort,” Wigand said in a recent newspaper interview. "It’s still an effort.” More than anything else could, "The Insider” not only explains why that effort was worth making but also how hard it was to make.
‘INSIDER’ LOOKS LIKE AN OSCAR CONTENDER
Michael Mann’s absorbing new film, “The Insider,” is a welcome throwback both to the great old inside-journalism movies of the ’30s and to the devastating muckraking-dramas that were the hallmark of Sidney Lumet in the ’70s (“Prince of the City,” “Serpico”).
For the past two months, the buzz in Hollywood has been that the film is so against the grain and over the head of the mass movie-going audience in America, that it’s doomed to box-office oblivion. But the exact same thing was said about “The Sixth Sense,” so we’ll see.
In any case, it’s a terrific movie — intelligent, magnificently acted, highly compelling as a thriller, and down-right scary in its implications for the corporate-run world of the new millennium. Box-office or no, this should be one of the year’s big Oscar contenders.
It’s the true story of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a former top research executive for a major tobacco company, who gave evidence to CBS’ “60 Minutes” about, among many damning things, his company’s nefarious plan to lace its product to make it even more addictive.
Seen mostly from the point of view of CBS producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), the first half of the film deals with the efforts to entice the reluctant Wigand to go public, while the industry attempts to intimidate him with death threats and harassment.
But the crux of the film comes after the segment is produced, and CBS — intimidated by a potential tobacco industry lawsuit, and its own executives’ fear of spoiling a profitable merger — buckles, decides not to air the interview, and leaves Wigand hanging in the wind.
Like most hard-hitting films based on recent real events, this one has drawn fire, most prominently from CBS star-reporter Mike Wallace — who, as portrayed by Christopher Plummer, is a major character in the film, and has more or less denounced it as a fiction.
But what’s on the screen is certainly true to the contours of the real story that’s gradually come to light, and it’s done with such a thoughtful, even hand that it’s hard to understand exactly what Wallace (who actually comes off rather well by the end) is crying about.
As a piece of technical filmmaking, the film is a considerable feat. Mann’s script and direction holds our interest like a vise over a lengthy running time, and with scenes that resolutely refuse to dumb up the material and more often than not consist of characters speaking to each other via cell phones.
The cast offers up three likely Oscar-nominations: Pacino, splendidly outraged as the ex-radical turned establishment TV producer; Crowe, brilliant as the complex, nervous, bitterly paranoid witness; and Plummer, who finds both alarming shallowness and unexpected backbone in the Avenging Angel of “60 Minutes.”
“The Insider” also has a great edge. It doesn’t easily resolve itself. Its characters are not enriched by their ordeal and its portrait of inherent corporate corruption is so unsettling that it should give much aid and comfort to all those World Trade Organization protesters currently piling into town to question the ability of corporations to run the New World Order.
'The Insider': Through a TV Screen Darkly
It has been a long time since we’ve had an enjoyable paranoid thriller in the tradition of such 1970s movies as “The Parallax View,” and “All the President’s Men.”
The key ingredient in those movies: a sort of refreshingly naive surprise that society is controlled by secret star chambers whose evil work is too subtle or concealed to be detected, and who have the organizational might to terminate any whistle-blowers foolish enough to take them on. This is good stuff.
“The Insider,” a fictionally reordered accounting of the three-way battle that included the TV news show “60 Minutes,” the CBS network and the tobacco industry, hits that hungry spot.
Michael Mann’s thriller, starring Al Pacino (as producer Lowell Bergman), Russell Crowe (as tobacco company whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand) and Christopher Plummer (Mike Wallace), is a well-orchestrated nightmare that keeps you on edge until the very end.
The facts, based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” are these: Wigand, who was a central witness in lawsuits filed against the tobacco industry by Mississippi and 49 other states, spoke with the “60 Minutes” team against the desire of his former employers.
Hounded by death threats and a smear campaign for speaking out, he was shocked to learn that the TV show would not air his interview because of pressure from CBS.
The network, seeking to avoid litigation, asked “60 Minutes” to do a different version of the news piece, sans Wigand. This prompted in-house squabbling between producer Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace (both of whom agreed to air the non-Wigand version) and Bergman, who fought the idea vigorously.
The movie, which Mann wrote with Eric (“Forrest Gump”) Roth, follows this story closely, but adds the appropriate atmospherics. By Hollywood’s limbo-pole standards, “The Insider” is a well-executed thriller that examines the shifting interface between high-minded principle and job security, between corporate agenda and moral code. Under Mann’s direction, the movie becomes a man-to-man contentious friendship between Pacino’s Bergman and Crowe’s Wigand, echoing a similar relationship between Pacino and Robert De Niro in Mann’s “Heat.”
Although Crowe’s portrayal of Wigand is “warts and all,” Brenner’s article paints a more-damning picture of Wigand’s irascible behavioral, marital and drinking problems. Conversely, Plummer’s Wallace shows a newsman a little too enamored of his legendary status, whose professional integrity is only as strong as his desire for job security.
How close is this to the truth? The real Wallace has publicly expressed his displeasure with the movie’s depiction of events, particularly concerning the circumstances that led to his capitulation to CBS. Is “The Insider” a hagiography of CBS News producer Bergman at the cost of his colleague Wallace and CBS management? How far from the truth does the movie wander? Suffice it to say, there’s a patina of truth here, enough for a good night at the movies.
“I don’t burn people,” Bergman tells Wigand, who fears that the “60 Minutes” producer will betray him.
We don’t know until the end whether Bergman will honor his word. But as we wait to find out, we are moviegoers, not Beltway pundits. What we’re dealing with here is sheer drama: the waning trust between two men forced together under extraordinary circumstances.
We’re also appreciating strong performances. As a tubby, increasingly paranoid (but with good reason) company man who becomes a dangerous catalyst in one of the nation’s most pressing public health matters, Crowe is fantastic to watch.
Pacino lends the right balance of heroic and antiheroic qualities as Bergman to keep us rooting for him to the last. And whether Plummer’s on the mark or not, his interpretation — like this movie — has a powerful ring of believability.
Clearing the Air Engaging `Insider' tells how `60 Minutes'
caved in to big tobacco
``The Insider'' is a truth-based drama about the former tobacco industry scientist who blew the whistle on his bosses. It's about how ``60 Minutes'' had the story but caved into pressure not to run it.
These issues are of interest, but on their own they could not hold an audience rapt for more than 2 1/2 hours. What gives ``The Insider'' its extra dose of urgency is the big question swirling around it: Do we live in a democracy or an oligarchy? In considering that, ``The Insider'' takes its place in the tradition of Frank Capra's ``Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'' and ``Meet John Doe.''
The heroes are coarser and less perfect these days. Russell Crowe plays Jeffrey Wigand, the industry insider, as a prickly and distant character, a fellow with collapsed body language and darting eyes. Crowe is young for the role -- the real Wigand was in his early 50s -- but he brings two important elements: He is intrinsically appealing, and he believably conveys Wigand's hair-trigger temper.
That capacity for anger, plus an ingrained sense of right and wrong, is what gets Wigand fired from his $300,000-a-year jobas research and development manager for Brown & Williamson tobacco. It also leads him to tell his story to ``60 Minutes'' -- with the encouragement of the show's segment producer, Lowell Bergman.
Bergman is the other hero of the movie, not a labyrinthine character like Wigand but a more straightforward good guy. As played by Al Pacino, Bergman is unpretentious, unimpressed, honest in his personal dealings and professionally committed to the truth. In ``The Insider,'' Pacino gets to tell people off who fall short of his standards. Any movie where Pacino gets to tell people off is all right by me.
In the early encounters between Wigand and Bergman, one can almost feel the reporter's excitement at having such a big fish on the line. Wigand knows something, and he wants to reveal it. He knows that his company chemically enhanced the effects of nicotine in its cigarettes, thus making them more addictive.
Michael Mann (``The Last of the Mohicans,'' ``Heat''), who by now must be counted among the important contemporary filmmakers, directs the picture with a vigorousness that is not overly obtrusive. He uses six shots to show Pacino checking a number in the phone book and dialing it, but few viewers will notice the technique. They will just feel its effect: a sense of something momentous about to happen.
In ``The Insider,'' if America is not a country completely run bymonied interests, it is close. ``60 Minutes,'' an American institution, is about to air its interview with Wigand when CBS higher-ups make it pull back. The fear is that lawsuits from the rich tobacco company could result in Brown & Williamson owning the network.
With the exception of Bergman, the CBS crew comes off poorly. Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall), the ``60 Minutes'' producer, is presented as an engaging fellow but a corporate lackey all the same. Christopher Plummer, as Mike Wallace, emerges as a more ambiguous, and thus more sympathetic, character, but he still has clay feet. He is a tough guy when dealing with easy targets, like Iranian politicians, but when the opponent is powerful, we see his tent fold up. We come away seeing him as more entertainer than journalist.
The picture is long, but there is never a lull. Scenes have a chance to breathe, and performances get to build.
Pacino and Crowe are at their best, but the supporting cast also shines. Diane Venora is superb as Wigand's wife, and Gina Gershon breaks out of the sexpot trap and stands out in two scenes as an icy CBS lawyer.
Reduced to a smartass summary, 'The Insider' is just a bunch of white guys talking for two hours and thirty-seven minutes about how truth gets compromised in America. Snooze, sorry, call PBS, I'm outta here. But such a gloss doesn't allow for the kick of Michael Mann, a director who could make visceral cinema out of a nun's e-mail. True, Mann's work on TV ('Miami Vice', 'Crime Story') and film ('Thief', 'Manhunter', 'The Last of the Mohicans', 'Heat') usually involves violence -- be it bullets or beatings. Characters shed no blood in 'The Insider', merely principles -- those pesky intangibles that on rare and special occasions trip up the march of corporate greed. Think that's boring? Watch Mann take a crack at it -- 'The Insider' will pin you to your seat.
What we have here is a volatile true story, with big-name actors playing high-profile people. There's Al Pacino, all quick wit and can-do zeal as Lowell Bergman, a producer on CBS' top-rated '60 Minutes'. Bergman, a former Sixties radical, works mostly with star correspondent Mike Wallace, who is played pricelessly by Christopher Plummer in a stunningly accomplished portrayal that takes measure of the talent and ego driving this veteran newsman. (Wallace, now eighty-one, has protested his treatment in the script.)
Mann and co-screenwriter Eric Roth ('Forrest Gump') begin 'The Insider' with a sharply funny, seemingly irrelevant scene set in Iran. A blindfolded Bergman takes a meeting with a sheik to cajole an exclusive interview. Wallace, who arrives after the details are ironed out, objects when the sheik's staff demands that the American sit far away from their leader. Wallace fumes: 'I'm not an assassin.' Bergman whispers to Wallace ('Are you through fucking around?') and effects a compromise; the interview commences. The first question is prime ballsy Wallace: 'Do you know everyone in America thinks you're a terrorist?'
The sheik has been set up for the journalistic kill. Why not? It's good, even great television. The scene sticks in the memory when Mann moves 'The Insider' to the main event. In 1995, Bergman tells Wallace and '60 Minutes' executive producer Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) that he's onto a bombshell. He thinks that Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a research scientist recently fired by Brown & Williamson -- the nation's third-largest cigarette company -- is ready to blow the whistle on his former bosses.
If Wigand puts his name on the line to expose his company's concealment of health risks, the repercussions will be huge. What a story! Never mind that Wigand will be personally screwed. To testify, he would violate a confidentiality agreement he signed with the firm that paid him $300,000 a year -- his new job as a teacher pays him a tenth of that. Wigand's wife (Diane Venora) is furious that he would put the financial welfare of their two daughters at risk.
Yet Wigand persists. How come? Heroism doesn't explain it; Wigand stayed quiet for years about Big Tobacco. It isn't until his former boss (Michael Gambon, purring with toxic charm) uses veiled threats to push for a tougher confidentiality pact that anger rises in this self-confessed 'plodder'.
The New Zealand-born Crowe, so strong in 'L.A. Confidential' and the Aussie-made 'Romper Stomper', cuts to the heart of an isolated man who seems to close off his emotions for fear of what might happen if they should spill out. Crowe plays Wigand like a gathering storm. This is acting of the highest level, and fully deserving of award attention.
With Bergman's tacit guarantee to Wigand that CBS is watching his back, the crusader embarks on legal maneuvers that will accuse tobacco companies of maintaining nicotine at addictive levels and subsequently cost them $246 billion in settlements. Wigand didn't count on pressures that would break up his marriage and lead to smear campaigns and death threats. For sure he didn't count on '60 Minutes' refusing to air his interview out of fear that retaliation from Big Tobacco could kill the sale of CBS to Westinghouse. A suicidal Wigand rages at Bergman, who in turn rails against Wallace for going along with Hewitt's cringing toady offer to air a sanitized version of the interview. Says Wallace: 'I'm seventy-eight years old, and I do not intend to spend the rest of my career wandering through the wilderness of National Public Radio.' Ouch!
Other films, notably 'All the President's Men', 'Network' and 'Quiz Show', have explored the politics of compromise. But Mann turns a moral issue into riveting suspense. 'What got broken here doesn't go back together again,' says Bergman, who quits '60 Minutes' even after CBS agrees to air the Wigand interview at a later date. Accuse Mann of overlength, bombast, dramatic license; his film is still mandatory viewing. With its dynamite performances, strafing wit and dramatic provocation, 'The Insider' offers Mann at his best -- blood up, unsanitized and unbowed." (thanks to Venita!)
‘INSIDER’ A GRIPPING DRAMA
Stirring in some respects, simplistic in others, Michael Mann’s “The Insider” is a consistently interesting and often electrifying look at a true story of big tobacco, media ethics and a prickly, peculiar whistle-blower. Clocking in at two hours, 44 minutes, the film could have benefited from judicious editing and a greater sense of responsibility from its creators. For while “The Insider” laments the sliding standards of news reporting, the movie itself fictionalizes events and distorts facts in the name of entertainment.
Of course, “The Insider” is just a movie, and filmmakers rarely concern themselves with truth when it gets in the way of good drama. News organizations have (supposedly) more rigorous principles, which is why the real story “The Insider” is based upon is so compelling.
In 1995, “60 Minutes,” the standard of excellence in television news reporting, did the unthinkable — its producers caved to corporate pressures and gutted a damning story about the tobacco industry. Hung out to dry in the process was their star witness, Jeffrey Wigand, a former tobacco industry executive, a man who had put everything on the line to testify that cigarette companies were a “delivery service for nicotine.”
The film revolves around the relationship between Wigand (Russell Crowe, subtly powerful) and hard-charging “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who woos Wigand with the same fervor that political candidates. In the opening minutes of the film, Wigand, chief of research and development at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., is fired from his job (too outspoken, doesn’t work well with others) and forced to sign a confidentiality agreement as part of his severance package.
The package is important. Wigand is a husband and father; his wife has expensive tastes and one of his two daughters has serious medical problems. Wigand is willing to shut up and walk away, but then his old boss (Michael Gambon, effectively ominous) calls and wants to expand the terms of the non-disclosure agreement. And Wigand — an intense sort who doesn’t like being told what to do — snaps. He won’t tolerate deception or bullying.
Enter Bergman. As the legman for star correspondent Mike Wallace, Bergman has won over Islamic terrorists to the cause of “60 Minutes,” but Wigand proves a trickier source. Initially, Bergman just wants Wigand to explain some tobacco-related documents that were left on his doorstep. But Wigand, motivated by personal vindication, gradually reveals more, becoming a golden source worthy of Wallace’s attention.
Wigand’s former employer, Brown & Williamson (the third largest tobacco company in the nation), doesn’t appreciate his truth-telling and bombards him with lawsuits. Wigand also receives death threats, and his already shaky marriage (Diane Venora, perfectly aloof as the wife) cracks even further.
The “60 Minutes” interview, Wigand believes, will be his exoneration. So imagine his dismay when CBS News bows to corporate pressure and pulls the story. Wigand feels betrayed (moral outrage is his specialty), as does Bergman, who accuses Wallace (Christopher Plummer) and “60 Minutes” executive producer Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) of selling out to the suits.
All of this makes for some fairly riveting drama, and Mann, always adept at creating suspense, depicts Wigand’s dark journey into heroism with a potent mixture of fear and dread. But in his determination to make Wigand’s story into a Watergate-like watershed, Mann occasionally overplays his hand and overextends his welcome. He creates conflict where there was none (Wallace fought for the piece as much as Bergman did) and invents unnecessary episodes (the death threat scenes are wildly exaggerated).
None of this diminishes “The Insider’s” achievement as an entertainment. The performances are sharp and the story is told with consummate flair. But as history goes, it’s from the “JFK” school — all smoke and mirrors.
A true-life public-affairs thriller about whistleblowing and personal morality
Movies are unique in how sneakily and viscerally they drive a wedge between what you think and how you feel.
Only at the movies does the gun-control advocate get transported by a ballet of bullets. Does the guy allergic to animal stories weep at the fate of some moist-eyed mutt. Does the gal who reviles cigarettes waft off on the nimbus of smoke exhaled by Our Hero. Few American directors drive this wedge between mind and gut as masterfully as Michael Mann. His exceptional true-life thriller The Insider is an unflinching close-up of Big Tobacco's gag order on Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a onetime Brown & Williamson employee critical of the chemical additives deployed to make cigarettes an even more addictive nicotine-delivery system. If Wigand talks, he risks losing his severance and the health insurance that provides for his asthmatic daughter's critical care. If he says nothing, he puts at risk millions of minors targeted by the tobacco industry. Once Mann's camera pulls back from Wigand's Momentous Decision, his film pungently dramatizes how violently Big Business, whether it's a tobacco company or a news network, drives the wedge between its employees' personal morality and corporate loyalty. Mann uses the camera as a microscope to probe the forces that impel someone to take action against his own self-interest. The performances he elicits from Russell Crowe as Wigand and Al Pacino as erstwhile 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman create suspense in an audience no doubt familiar with the narrative outcome. For as with Apollo 13, with The Insider we know what happened. Grippingly, Mann shows us how, magnifying psychology typically invisible to the naked eye.
A sprawling, public-affairs thriller in the spirit of All the President's Men and Call Northside 777, The Insider is not, like those films, a celebration of the crusader-journalist. It is a Michael Mann film, which is to say it is about two men, each startled by how sharply he is reflected in the eyes and face of his opposite. In Mann's Thief, the robber understands himself better by projecting himself into the mind-set of the detective. In Heat, the cop has his epiphany at a sitdown with the career criminal. Even in The Last of the Mohicans, mortal enemies Hawkeye and Magua know that it takes a predator to track one. The dynamic between bottled-up Wigand and Bergman, the advance man who specializes in uncorking and decanting sources for Mike Wallace, creates The Insider's exquisite tension. This is ratcheted up several degrees by its resourceful actors, who include wily Christopher Plummer as Wallace and no-guff Bruce McGill as a Mississippi lawyer who checkmates a tobacco attorney. Crowe, the Australian actor of bulldog tenacity (he was the volatile cop in L.A. Confidential), plays Wigand like a man forced to swallow a rattlesnake. As Bergman, Pacino insinuates that he is the antitoxin, that he can unburden Wigand of his poisonous secret. As it turns out, once Bergman gets Wigand to talk on the record, the tobacco interests threaten to gag CBS News in exactly the way they gag Wigand.
In a '40s or '50s suspense movie, the characters would puff a cigarette at a reflective moment or brandish a handgun at a confrontational one. Here, they take long drags on their cellulars or wield them as threats. Some wag once criticized All the President's Men as a political thriller about typing, and I imagine some wag will say this is a corporate thriller about phones. Improbably, Mann depicts telephone as fishing line, as umbilical cord, and as lifeline. And, like the film's percussive soundtrack, it is breathtaking. So are Crowe and Pacino. In this widescreen movie shot mostly in extreme close-up, these two most physical of performers act from the necks up. Both do wonders with the limited equipment of face and voice, Crowe clenching his jaw to suggest the tightly clamped Wigand, and Pacino hoarse as Bergman, a guy who talks a lot in order to encourage others to do same. And what do these men, Wigand and Bergman, see when they meet each other's gaze? Each sees a man whose hubris is to believe he is contributing something positive to his corporation, but in the end is seen as dangerous, precisely because he has morals. Finally, The Insider is as harsh on CBS News as it is on Big Tobacco. However unlikely it is that the Disney corporation financed and distributed this movie bluntly critical of how corporate America protects corporate America, it is bracing to see a movie that understands that only a man can protect another man. (Thanks to Lulu)
It's too easy to praise "The Insider" as the best movie about journalism since "All the President's Men."
Just imagine, this powerhouse drama must be more realistic than either "Message in a Bottle" or "Sleepless in Seattle."
More to the point, it's one of the year's most compelling and well-acted movies. Michael Mann's astute direction demonstrates how to turn a dialogue-heavy screenplay into a cinematic experience. In "The Insider," duels are fought with faxes rather than special effects, and the director makes it just as exciting.
Mr. Mann has always been a gifted visual stylist. "Miami Vice" had one of the most provocative looks of any television series, and "The Last of the Mohicans" and "Heat" placed human figures against striking vistas. But the most intense scenes in "The Insider" are in tight, even claustrophobic settings, and the confrontations are strictly human-to-human.
Happily, these are colorful humans, enacted with intelligence and flavor. The film strikes a fine balance between the different styles of bombastic Al Pacino and restrained Russell Crowe. Mr. Pacino gets his inevitable chances to shout, but only for the sake of the story. Mr. Crowe manages to register a multitude of emotions behind a terse facade.
Mr. Pacino growls and huffs engagingly as "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman. The film presents Mr. Bergman, rather than Mike Wallace, as the driving force behind the lauded CBS news series. When he meets Jeffrey Wigand (Mr. Crowe), a disgruntled ex- employee of a big tobacco company, he smells a story.
Mr. Wigand's revelations — that tobacco companies are fully aware of the addictive nature of their product and even try to heighten the addiction — are not the film's major point. The drama stems from the not-always-amicable efforts of both men to get the story on "60 Minutes" and the rumored complicity between journalism and big business.
Mr. Wigand's severance package unfortunately included a confidentiality clause that prohibits sneaking smoke signals to the media. Simply having a conversation with Mr. Bergman leads to death threats on Mr. Wigand's e-mail and a bullet placed in his mailbox. Still, CBS honchos vacillate, fearing big-business reprisals.
Mr. Crowe added 30 pounds and a gray wig to play someone 19 years older than his own age of 34. He is a superb Wigand. He captures the man's stubborn integrity and righteous anger, balanced by an inevitable sadness. He forges a touching trajectory from comfortable executive to divorced, middle-aged schoolteacher who probably will always rue the misery that truth-telling can bring.
Mr. Crowe, rather than Mr. Pacino, provides the film's anchor. Some scenes, in fact, seem invented purely to show Mr. Bergman's chutzpah, as befits Mr. Pacino's star status. But his is an ingratiatingly tough portrayal of a gonzo journalist.
Some high-profile types are reportedly unhappy with their big-screen presentation. Christopher Plummer plays Mike Wallace with an accurate supercilious air; he's smooth, self-serving, but capable of making the right decisions if forced into a corner. Philip Baker Hall plays network producer Don Hewitt as a nervous lackey. Gina Gershon, frequently cast in blue-collar roles, gets to display her versatility as a corporate smoothie. Diane Venora, whose excellent work in "The Jackal" went unnoticed, makes dramatic sense of the role of Mr. Wigand's not-so-steadfast spouse.
At times, the movie's air of righteous anger carries the burden of pomposity. But those moments are far from fatal. Mr. Mann and his superb cast keep "The Insider" buoyant. (Thanks to Lulu)
In "The Insider,' big-time TV journalism meets Big Tobacco, with explosive results
So much of Michael Mann's "The Insider" is rendered as opera that it doesn't take long for things to seem as if Al Pacino's hoarse fire-breathing is going to break into an aria. As the "60 Minutes"news producer Lowell Bergman, Pacino looks like he wants to burst into song but is too burnt out to sing.
Under these circumstances, Mann has made a film whose sense of journalistic justice is stretched to the breaking point, so he turns a real-life ethical morass involving a fired tobacco scientist (Russell Crowe) who spills his beans to Mike Wallace into an epic dirge.
Mann's is a world in which even the critical exchange of faxes carries the dramatic intensity of a cliffhanger and the ambient techno score takes on the weight of orchestral movements. Is "The Insider" about the highly flammable tiff between factions at CBS News and Big Tobacco? Or is it an exercise in audio-visual arousal? The way Mann weds one to the other, it's both. It's best to think of "The Insider" as a meticulously assembled dramatization of a grossly controversial moment in TV history. Orthe longest, most arrestingly cinematic segment "60 Minutes" never aired.
Typical of "Miami Vice" creator Mann, "The Insider" is ahandsomely constructed production, from Dante Spinotti's gorgeous and dynamic photography to the make-up artists who've gotten Christopher Plummer's skin that perfect, leathery Mike Wallace salmon shade of pink. In what's essentially a supporting role, Plummer plays Wallace as a prissy, self-serving hard-ass.It's a magnificently hammy performance that doesn't go out of its way to counteract Mann and Eric Roth's script (inspired by Marie Brenner's infamous 1996 Vanity Fair story), which portrays Wallace as an egotistically driven blowhard/diva, with a severedisconnect between his sense of journalistic integrity and the close-knit staff of reporters making sure it remains intact on the air.
An early scene of Wallace going berserk before an interview with a Saudi sheik is a bit so burlesque it's shocking. Ultimately, the film's treatment of Wallace is more fair than the real Mike Wallace would have you believe, in that Plummer's replica has an innate understanding of the vicissitudes of TV news, a smidgen of compassion and is not malevolent, simply mildly megalomaniacal.
And if "The Insider," thanks to Brian Morris' production design and Spinotti's shot-making, has a painterliness about it, then it would follow that the film itself is about portraits of several men, including Plummer's Wallace. But chiefly, the film is a head shot of Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe) and especially Lowell Bergman and the way one man can't quite trust himself to trust the other.
After he's forcibly removed from a high-paying job as the head research scientist at Brown and Williamson, maker of such fine narcotics as Kools, Wigand's shell-shock and anger compel him to ship a box of files to Bergman's door in Berkeley. And, eventually, he shyly, nervously expresses an interest in sharing with Bergman and the world Big Tobacco's knowledge that -- despite its claims -- cigarettes really are addictive. Once Wallace interviews Wigand for "60 Minutes," CBS News, fearing an apocalyptic lawsuit from B&W, which made Wigand sign a confidentiality agreement, decides to run the piece without Wigand. It's a decision made, as Bergman reminds the brass (which includes Gina Gershon as a network lawyer), without a consideration of the possibility that it could destroy the already unstable Wigand, who's been counting on the airing of the segment to vindicate himself.
The truth, which was never quite clear to begin with, gets increasingly muddier as the CBS legal department clamps down on CBS News and as a zillion little facts about Wigand's past come to light. Mann's storytelling here is so tense that even the NYC taxis sweat. The smaller characters, such as Wigand's vaguely unstable wife (Diane Venora, under a Jessica Lange spell) and "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall, resisting caricature), have inner lives.
Crowe has been made up to look like such an ashen-gray, middle-aged, Middle-American schlub that the occasional emergence of the actor's Australian accent doesn't matter. His performance is an unraveling knockout. Wigand, whose life is in a constant state of siege, finds himself increasingly degraded and humiliated and the object of both media and corporate scrutiny. Crowe's sullen, trenchant, beleaguered demeanor makes you grateful that it's Wigand and not you.
Mann is not a politics-first director. He's supremely skilled at pensive action films such as "'Heat," in which even shoot-outs felt contemplative. "The Insider" is a film Sidney Lumet could make while dreaming. But Lumet, for all his socio-political aplomb, would have been at a loss as to how to beautify his subject matter as Mann has here. (Atmospheric silences become the film's soundtrack, and the standard, over-the-shoulder shot-reverse-shot looks as though it's been given a breath mint.) Though you'd think someone with a specialty in the gray matter of black and white issues would take on a story with so many complications willing to play the designated outsider, ready to meld the good and the bad with the ugly and the fair. Instead, he shows an aberrantly Capra-esque sense of twisted optimism and worships the wrong hero.
"The Insider" has one obvious villain in Big Tobacco and an untouchable warrior of justice in Bergman, in whom the film has found its unconditional hero. He can circumnavigate the simultaneous meltdown of his TV show and his star source, be a loving husband and do most of Mike Wallace's job for him -- sometimes from a remote hut in the Bahamas. He's no ordinary producer, he's Captain America with a Motorola. Mann's unwavering aggrandizement of Bergman is as false a note as the film's 555 phone numbers. Still, Pacino, in righteous ". . . And Justice For All" mode, remains as furious and fiery as anything he's done. He makes the guy appear complex where on the page he probably just seemed busy. Mann's made nothing less than a deeply riveting media thriller. But it's one whose emphasis on Bergman's sacrificial decency rather than Wigand's far more intriguing imperilment makes it seem as if the lingering ruin of a life is something you can summarize in a caption before the end credits scroll.
Michael Mann’s ‘The Insider’ Misses Chance at Intriguing Drama
Loyalty has never been one of the great American virtues. Americans are too obsessed with change and movement and self-improvement for that. Let the rest of the world spend their lives in one city, one profession, one marriage. Americans are too hungry, too unsatisfied, too eager to move on to the Next Good Thing.
That’s one of the reasons Michael Mann’s new drama, “The Insider,” has the potential — ultimately unrealized, sadly — for such intriguing drama.
Because “The Insider” takes the question of loyalty as its own great subject. And asks: Is a man’s fealty to a signed contract greater than his obedience to unwritten law? Is a top professional’s immediate responsibility to his profession or to the people who employ him?
The story that allows Mann and stars Al Pacino and Russell Crowe to examine those questions is the true story of Jeffrey Wigand, a research executive at Brown & Williamson. His position in the top ranks of a huge tobacco company made him privy to information vital to the nation’s health; his contract with that company made him swear to keep those secrets forever.
So which road should he take now. He has some idea, but there to push him toward public exposure is Lowell Bergman, a producer for “60 Minutes.” An interview with a whistle-blowing tobacco exec, Bergman knows, will make a great show — so great, however, that soon his bosses are worrying about lawsuits. Then Bergman has his own crisis of conscience — is his first duty to protect his source, or his program?
This moral drama is an unusual choice for Mann, who cut his teeth on the ultra-stylish “Miami Vice” and then moved on to grown-up action movies like “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Heat.” You can feel him straining at the bit a little, too, particularly when Wigand gets some anonymous threats, and wanders his house in pursuit of a mysterious stranger. Mann’s clearly eager to amp things up, even when the facts aren’t that dramatic (Wigand’s chief revelation — that tobacco company executives knew nicotine was addictive — is hardly a bombshell.)
Still, Mann has always loved actors, and that’s in full evidence here. Al Pacino plays Bergman, and although he seems slightly miscast as the angry ‘60s radical turned cranky ‘90s executive (the part has Dustin Hoffman all over it) he gives a fine performance of controlled anger, carefully tamping down the rage that too often has burned out of control.
Russell Crowe, meanwhile, erases the embarrassment of the recent “Mystery, Alaska” with an anguished job as Wigand — an imperfect man trying to do one good thing, and fouling his marriage up in the process. (Memo to future whistle-blowers: If you’re planning to go public and possibly ruin your family’s life, talk to your spouse first.)
The film’s own verisimilitude is a lot shakier. There were angry shouts from the CBS crowd early on that the movie misrepresented the network and its stars. Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt both claimed the script twisted the facts in order to heighten its drama. Watching “The Insider” now, it’s clear that they had a point.
It’s not that their story isn’t told in mostly flattering terms (at least one scripted scene mocking Christopher Plummer’s Wallace as a prima donna has been dropped, and he has been given a big rally-the-troops speech). It’s that it is told strictly in Bergman’s terms. He gets a star’s dramatic entrance and curtain-closing exit, and both more than stretch the truth.
That is the real problem with “The Insider.” Because ultimately this movie isn’t about Wigand, or tobacco, or even journalism, but about Lowell Bergman — and its devotion to its hero is unquestioning. Wallace may be a strutting egotist, and Wigand an angry misfit, but the film’s Bergman is a simple good man. Corporations may be corrupt, other journalists out for a buck, but noble Bergman alone stays true to his to-the-barricades ideals.
The fact that those ideals have managed to buy him a beachfront cottage and a redwood mansion isn’t discussed. The possibility that he’s as responsible for the wreck of Wigand’s life as anyone is barely even raised. This movie needs a hero — and rather than letting Jeffrey Wigand be it, rough edges and all, it polishes Bergman down until he fits.
Loyalty is a virtue too often ignored in America. “The Insider” is willing to explore it, but finds it is all too easy to extend it as well. The unquestioning worship of its own hero only helps breach what should have been its first responsibility all along — to its audience.
AP WEEKEND ENTERTAINMENT AND ARTS
Consider “The Insider” a buddy film.
Based on real events, it brings together Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a former tobacco company executive who knows too much, and Lowell Bergman, a producer for Mike Wallace on CBS’ “60 Minutes” who wants Wigand to blow the whistle on Big Tobacco.
But there are no Butch-and-Sundance high jinx in “The Insider.” This is no joyride for Russell Crowe and Al Pacino, its stars. An absorbing and suspenseful film, “The Insider” sticks to business. And gives it the business.
That means villainous Big Tobacco, although CBS doesn’t fare so well either. (Forget The Washington Post in “All the President’s Men,” going with the story come what may.)
So what is the story Bergman wants so badly? What does Wigand, a research scientist and former vice president of Brown & Williamson Tobacco, know? Among other things, that his ex-employer was fully aware of the addictive properties of nicotine, yet continued to plead ignorant. Indeed, Wigand is convinced that Brown & Williamson’s chief executive lied to Congress about the dangers of tobacco.
Wigand’s dilemma: He signed a nondisclosure agreement with the company. If he talks, he invites lawsuits and even jail. Once a well-paid executive, he now worries how to support his wife and two young daughters — and how he will stand up to a vicious campaign waged by tobacco interests to make sure he keeps quiet.
Much of “The Insider” is taken up with Bergman, a swashbuckling journalist with a social conscience, doing a courtship dance with his “insider” while he strategizes how to get the truth on the record without sacrificing Wigand. cm-bd
In hotel rooms, cars, restaurants and, a continent apart, on cell phones, they plot and haggle and spar.
“I’m just a commodity to you, aren’t I?” says Wigand, torn between his burning desire to tell TV star journalist Mike Wallace what he knows and his concern for his family’s welfare.
“To a network, probably we’re all commodities,” says Bergman, trying to win his trust. “To me, what you are is important.”
Playing Bergman tough and passionate, Pacino keeps the film’s energy flowing.
But Crowe steals the show in a performance that’s as measured as Pacino’s is expansive. Crowe somehow manages to inhabit his character, a complicated yet ordinary Everyman. Wigand by nature is remote, introspective and moody, yet somehow Crowe brings him to the screen with remarkable nuance.
Full of step-by-step information to put across, “The Insider” is a dialogue-heavy film. But, like Wigand, its drama is understated. In director Michael Mann’s hands, the film adopts a loose-limbed, documentary feel.
But there’s an anxious undercurrent. And with good reason. Not only is Wigand haunted by his tobacco foes, but he and Bergman are also betrayed by CBS, which decides to hold off airing the “60 Minutes” expose after all those torturous months of preparation.
CBS executives profess fear of exposing the company to a billion dollar lawsuit for “tortious interference,” or wrongfully inducing Wigand to breach his secrecy contract with Brown & Williamson. And, ironically, the greater the truth of Wigand’s disclosures, the greater need to squelch the story thanks to the greater penalty CBS might incur by airing them.
Wallace and “60 Minutes” executive producer Don Hewitt cave in. And this becomes the film’s overriding tragedy — that the august, seemingly indomitable “60 Minutes” has choked.
But Bergman isn’t through and “The Insider” isn’t over. The “60 Minutes” piece on Wigand eventually does air as the film reaches its poignant, if somewhat prolonged conclusion.
Four years after the fact, “The Insider” has infuriated folks at CBS — especially Wallace, who had only read the script.
Little does he know. In a film otherwise well-cast, the choice of Christopher Plummer to play him is a monumental mistake. For one thing, the voice: As everyone knows, Wallace summons that rich baritone up through his throat like an organist at his keyboard. By contrast, Plummer’s voice seems processed through his nose.
Worse, Plummer plays “Iron Mike” as proper, even prissy. And that bootblack hair is gray!
You think Wallace is mad about this picture now? Wait till he catches a screening!
The impact of a challenging story boldly tackled is diminished by serious overlength and an overriding air of self-importance in “The Insider.” This detailed analysis of the ferocious power, implacable arrogance and ultimate vulnerability of corporate America can only be respected for the fearless determination with which it pulls the curtain back on the shameless chicanery of giant profit- and image-minded companies. But director and co-writer Michael Mann has succumbed to the idea that such a big subject needs “big” treatment, resulting in a borderline pretentious, overly inflated picture. Topical subject matter, Russell Crowe’s outstanding performance and plenty of grist for off-showbiz-page media coverage should give Disney more than enough fuel to launch this prestige release to good, if limited, B.O. results, which could conceivably be boosted by critical plaudits and connection to the zeitgeist in the wake of its Nov. 6 release.
The story of the unheroic scientific researcher who exposed the tobacco companies’ official lies about the unhealthful nature of its product, leading to legal decisions that, for the first time, began going against firms in “the nicotine delivery business,” was a fairly unlikely one for an expensive major studio feature, and might have found its ideal form as the sort of tight, no-flab corporate thriller at which HBO has come to excel.
History has provided Mann with the opportunity for a dual investigation of corporate duplicity, courtesy of CBS’initial decision not to air its explosive “60 Minutes” interview with the whistle-blower, which caused deep wounds that the picture will no doubt reopen. The interwoven structure generates tension and creates a larger portrait of the way big business works and relates to those in its “family.”
But the downside to this approach is a measure of sprawl and sag that continually retards the sought-after narrative charge and sense of accumulating anxiety.
In a prologue that provides a taste of the power of “60 Minutes” and some pure movie razzle-dazzle, show producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) gutsily sets up an interview in Iran with an alleged Islamic terrorist that is ultimately conducted by Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer). Colorful and amusing episode is intercut with the firing of Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe) from his position as head of research and development at Brown & Williamson, the third-largest U.S. tobacco company.
A devoted family man who must sign a confidentialityagreement in order to receive a settlement and continued benefits, the unprepossessing Wigand initially resists Bergman’s request to help him decipher some tobacco-related documents. But Wigand has a strong stubborn streak and a sense of what’s right that springs out of him at unexpected moments; despite his need to support his wife (Diane Venora) and two school-age daughters, he initially tells his former boss (Michael Gambon, marvelously malevolent) to shove it when asked to agree to an expanded confidentiality pact, only to backtrack later on.
But by then the cat’s out of the bag, and Bergman, a scarcely reformed radical and Ramparts journalist, keeps after the man he knows can blow the lid off the deceptionsof “the seven dwarfs,” the heads of the seven major tobacco companies who, with their most sincere poker faces, have denied to a congressional committee that smoking posesany health risks.
Mann and co-scenarist Eric Roth proceed to describe every movement of every gear in the process that leads Wigand to spill the beans: his taking of a teaching job and move to a smaller house; his preliminary “60 Minutes” interview, in which he directly accuses the tobacco companies of lying; his agreement to the legal ploy of giving a deposition in a Mississippi tobacco case, thereby freeing him of the constraints of his confidentiality agreement; the posting of security men in his house in the wake of death threats; and his abandonment by his wife, who simply can’t take the pressure anymore.
Although the relationship between Wigand, by nature a private man with a tendency to internalize things, and Bergman, a demonstrative New Yorker who thrives on confrontation, is often testy and on the verge of unraveling, Wigand takes the enormous risks he does with the full confidence that Bergman — and, by implication, “60 Minutes” — will be there to back him up and make it all worthwhile in the end. That this confidence is misplaced represents the story’s biggest shock, one that naturally devastates Wigand but ultimately has a more profound impact on Bergman and the reputation of the most respected show on U.S. television.
Just as Bergman is pulling together his bombshell broadcast, CBS corporate reps (personified by GinaGershon) quash it due to a legal technicality (one that Bergman suspects is a cover for the threat the controversialsegment may pose to a sale of the web to Westinghouse). Bergman naturally assumes that he will have Mike Wallace’s support in this battle, but when the crusty old pro concedes to the preparation of a watered-down version of the story, the darkest hour arrives for Wigand, the witness who has been betrayed, and Bergman, the righteous crusader who has been hung out to dry.
But, of course, it doesn’t end there. In the wake of CBS’ cop-out, Bergman must battle against a smear campaign launched against Wigand, who goes into a suicidal funk in a hotel room from which he can peer directly into his former employer’s offices. As the yarn unravels further, Wallace realizes his mistake and goes back on the air with the full story. All the same, the extensive damage prompts the disenchanted Bergman to lament, “What got broken here doesn’t go back together again.”
Despite the always interesting behind-the-scenes look at the legwork and politics necessary to produce “60 Minutes,” the heart of the story here is Wigand, and it is upon him that the film should have more squarely concentrated. A man of integrity who can nonetheless be unreliable and short-tempered, a thick-bodied fellow who moves with a strangely contradictory quick waddle, a nondescript member of the middle class with particular gifts (he’s a brilliant scientist and is fluent in Japanese), Wigand snugly fits the description of an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
Refusing to make him dashing or attractive in any conventional movie way, Crowe, topped off with thinning and lightened hair and sporting glasses that he habitually pushes up to the bridge of his nose with his middle finger, makes him a fascinating and unpredictable enigma, a figure of complicated motives.
Pacino invests Bergman with boundless energy and passion for his job, but it’s a one-note character for whom the audience needs no further layering. Bergman spends most of his screen time badgering, cajoling and shouting, much of it over the phone, and it’s easy to imagine the film scoring nearly all its points with Bergman as a supporting character, not as a star part; little is gained by seeing him with his wife (Lindsay Crouse) or so relentlessly pursuing dramatically secondary issues.
On the other hand, the benefits of less-is-more are readily seen in the case of Plummer’s Wallace. In his handful of judiciously chosen and sharply written scenes, Plummer delivers enormous satisfaction in an authoritative portrait of the celebrated newsman who is gruff, shrewd, arrogant when he needs to be and always extremely smart — exceptfor one crucial moment.
A host of talented thesps contributes vivid portraits for a large gallery of supporting parts.
Mann extended his superb last feature, “Heat,” to the outer limits and got away with it, but it’s not the same here; at 157 minutes, pic feels at least 20 minutes too long. As high-powered and inventive as the direction is, “The Insider,” much of which is confined to offices, homes and hotels, simply doesn’t provide much potential for the sort of physical cinema that allows Mann to flex his muscles.
Any number of sequences are over-elaborated in an attempt to pump them up visually, which has the cumulative effectof attaching unnecessary weight to a story that is already sufficiently interesting.
Despite the limited scenic opportunities of Middle America and the mundane interiors, pic has the customary flair associated with Mann and lenser Dante Spinotti. Musical choices, which include numerous exotic, foreign-sounding themes, are odd, with some working and others not. Reviewed at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, Beverly Hills, Sept. 22, 1999. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 157 MIN. (Thanks to Ruth)
Journalism hasn't looked this glamorous since "All the President's Men." "The Insider" is Michael Mann's film version of the scramble by the mighty "60 Minutes" to tell the story of tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand. And like all of Mann's films, it comes at the viewer with sledge-hammer intensity, pumped with startling, bold images, feverish acting and an exquisite soundtrack ranging from a melancholy mandolin to eerie vocals.
While undoubtedly a distortion of the journalistic process and, quite possibly, of the salient facts in this particular tale of a news organization's humiliating retreat on a major story, the film is undeniably entertaining. The trick for Buena Vista will be to come up with a campaign to convince serious-minded moviegoers that a story about big tobacco and a TV news producer can actually create tensions worthy of a Cold War spy thriller.
One helpful element is that news articles debating the veracity and issues in this film are as likely to wind up on op-ed as on entertainment pages. And edgy, mesmerizing performances by Al Pacino and Russell Crowe add luster to this extremely well-made film.
Wigand, a fired Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. executive, earned headlines about four years ago when he alleged that tobacco execs lied for years about their knowledge of the dangerous health effects of cigarette smoking and the addictive nature of nicotine.
"60 Minutes" taped an interview with Wigand for a Mike Wallace segment on the perfidy of the tobacco industry. But a CBS lawyer argued strongly against including the interview in the segment. Wigand, as "60 Minutes" knew, had signed a confidentiality agreement with Brown & Willamson as part of his severance package. If CBS induced him to break that agreement, the network could be liable for significant monetary damages.
"60 Minutes" was forced to broadcast a story that essentially explained why the show was unable to run the interview with Wigand, who was not mentioned by name. Three months later, after the Wall Street Journal repeated Wigand's allegations, "60 Minutes" did air the entire segment.
The movie following the lead of a 1996 Vanity Fair article about Wigand upon which Eric Roth and Mann's screenplay is based tells this story through two individuals. One, of course, is Wigand (Crowe). The other is Lowell Bergman, a "60 Minutes" producer who worked with Wallace for 14 years. With Pacino as Bergman, the producer has been transformed into a hard-charging hero, an amalgamation of an investigative journalist, spy, father confessor and legal counsel. He meets people in dark bars and shadowy street corners, makes surreptitious calls from phone booths and has the ability to sweet-talk a Hezbollah leader into giving an interview to a "Zionist-controlled" American TV network.
The movie opens with Bergman riding blindfolded in a car in Lebanon to meet with this Hezbollah leader. The message is clear: This man lives a life of danger while Wallace grandly follows in his wake to do the on-camera interviews and grab the glory.
The movie, based entirely on Bergman's point of view, portrays Wallace and Don Hewitt, "60 Minutes'" creator and exec producer, as chicken-hearts who bow to management on the film's key ethical issue and leave a source to hang in the wind. Pacino's fiery Bergman is the segment's lone champion.
This makes for excellent drama and a dandy case of righteous indignation. But given that these are real people, the viewer has the right to wonder about the accuracy of this dramatization. Wallace is known to be outraged by the suggestion that he didn't fight to air the entire segment.
Fortunately, the story's real hero, Wigand, manages not to get lost in the Pacino/Bergman heroics, largely because of a riveting performance by Crowe. The man's life falls apart because of his decision to tell tales. His wife leaves him along with their two daughters; he's harassed by his former employers; he receives death threats; and even the FBI treats him with suspicion.
The weakest element in the script is that it never really explains why Wigand agreed to the interview. But Crowe lets you feel Wigand's emotional deterioration as he clings to his sanity despite bouts of paranoia, hallucinations and heavy drinking.
The film is gifted with a number of excellent performances: Christopher Plummer perfectly catches Mike Wallace's manner and speech cadences. Philip Baker Hall's Hewitt, Gina Gershon as a CBS attorney, Stephen Tobolowsky as a corporate biggie and Lindsay Crouse as Bergman's understanding wife are all vivid characters who make striking impressions in their brief time on screen.
A major contributor to this movie is composer Lisa Gerrard who, working with partner Pieter Bourke, draws upon medieval and Middle Eastern motifs to create eerie musical passages that Mann juxtaposes with cinematographer Dante Spinotti's strong, dark images.
Some of Gerrard and Bourke's music, originally written for the keyboard, is performed by an entire string section, giving an almost acoustical sound.
All of which makes "The Insider" a sleek, hard-not-to-like package.