Insider, The (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It has been four years since the events depicted in Michael Mann's The Insider occurred. Actually, to be precise, it has been four years since some of them occurred. In the interests of drama, a certain amount of "fictionalization" has taken place. The incidents related here represent CBS News' blackest hour - a time when greed and bad judgment overcame journalistic integrity. A story for 60 Minutes compiled by correspondent Mike Wallace (played in the film by Christopher Plummer) and producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) was killed when a potential lawsuit by tobacco giant Brown & Williamson threatened a buyout of CBS that would make a number of high-placed corporate executives very rich. The story, an interview with Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a fired B&W corporate V.P. who had decided to blow the whistle on his former boss' lies to congress, created such a behind-the-scenes furor at the newsmagazine that the segment was ordered shelved. When The New York Times printed an exposé about what had happened, CBS News had egg on its face and was forced to re-consider the decision.

Wigand was removed from the B&W payroll in March 1993 because, in his words, "When I get angry, I have difficulty censoring myself and I don't like being pushed around." As a scientist, Wigand was deeply disturbed by the results of a study he ran, which showed that cigarettes are nothing more than "a delivery device for nicotine" and that the tobacco companies deliberately manipulate the levels of the drug in their product to promote addiction. He first met Bergman when the 60 Minutes producer was looking for an expert to translate industry-specific technical jargon. As the two spent time together, Bergman realized that Wigand knew an explosive secret, but was constrained from talking by a confidentiality agreement he had signed upon leaving B&W (the terms of which guaranteed his severance pay and continued medical coverage). Bergman, believing he knew a way around a breach of contract, offered Wigand the opportunity to be subpoenaed to testify in a Mississippi wrongful death class action lawsuit against the tobacco companies. Once his testimony was a part of the public record, he could go on 60 Minutes to state his case. Even before Wigand agreed, he and his family became the targets of terroristic threats from anonymous sources. Eventually, Wigand's day to give a deposition arrived, but, after risking everything (including his marriage and the possibility of going to jail), he learned that 60 Minutes had decided to cut the interview, rendering his sacrifices moot. Wigand had been betrayed, Bergman had been hung out to dry, and the Court of Public Opinion would not hear the truth about the tobacco giants.

The Insider is like a play in two acts. The first half of the film centers on Wigand - his struggles with his conscience, his conflict with his former employers, his difficulty convincing his wife to understand and accept the sacrifices she was being forced to make, and his decision to damn the consequences and go forward. During this part of the movie, Bergman is clearly a supporting character. At just past the midway point, this changes, with Bergman moving into the spotlight and Wigand fading into the background. Bergman becomes Wigand's crusader - a fireball of righteous indignation screaming about violations of trust and journalistic integrity.

Dividing the film in this manner results in a second half that feels fractionally off-center. Certainly, there's a great deal of intensity (and Pacino's not the only one to supply it - both Bruce McGill and Christopher Plummer have powerhouse scenes), but the shift of the focus from Wigand to Bergman leaves a small vacuum that all of the great 60 Minutes behind-the-scenes machinations can't completely fill. During the film's first 80 minutes, when Wigand is in nearly every scene, Mann fashions a connection between the character and the audience. When Bergman later takes center stage and Wigand is relegated to the wings, The Insider's emotional core becomes blurred. We never feel for Bergman the way we do for Wigand, who has more on the line.

The Insider is arguably a little too long with a few too many minor subplots thrown in (such as one about the Unibomber). However, when the movie is on-target, which is most of the time, it is riveting. Mann generates tension without resorting to the boring stand-bys of shootouts and chase scenes. The actors play their roles as if there's something tangible on the line, and those performances heighten the level of suspense. The camerawork, by veteran cinematographer Dante Spinotti, uses frequent hand-held shots to help establish an edgy, uncertain tone. On one hand, the movie is about the corruption of a National Institution - how 60 Minutes, the paragon of newsworthiness, was pressured by financial considerations to cut a story. On the other hand, The Insider is about Wigand's courage - how the man took a stand and was betrayed by the people he expected to protect him. Those are the two faces of the movie's powerful and compelling drama, and both are handled expertly.

Pacino is at his intense best. This isn't a new kind of role for him - he's basically resurrecting Arthur Kirkland from ...And Justice for All - but the familiarity of the part doesn't limit his effectiveness. Russell Crowe, who typically plays a young, vital character, essays a weary man who is prematurely aging under the burden of integrity. With thinning, white hair and spectacles, Crowe looks far less imposing than he did in his most recent film, Mystery, Alaska, or in his U.S. breakthrough, L.A. Confidential. He presents Wigand as a nervous, uncommunicative character who gives his testimony almost timidly, but can be driven to brief, passionate outbursts. He and Pacino complement each other well.

Physically, Christopher Plummer bears only a passing resemblance to Mike Wallace, but the veteran actor manages a credibly mimicry of the newsman's mannerisms and vocal patterns. Plummer plays Wallace somewhat unsympathetically. He is shown to be afflicted with a large ego and is opportunistic, yet, in the end, he clearly views the phrase "journalistic integrity" as more than a buzzword. Plummer has a single standout scene - Wallace goes into a towering rage after some of his on-air comments have been excised from a broadcast. ("You think you can edit me?!") Other credible supporting performances are given by Diane Verona (as Wigand's wife), Bruce McGill (who has a small, but powerful, part as an attorney in the tobacco suit), and Colm Feore (as another lawyer).

Unlike Mann's previous outing, Heat, where the first on-screen meeting between Pacino and Robert DeNiro overshadowed everything and gave the proceedings a ponderous, portentous air, The Insider remains well grounded. To be sure, the film tackles some big issues, but Mann never permits any of these "shock" revelations (which really aren't all that shocking) to eclipse the fact that the characters, not the concepts, hold our interest; everything else is of secondary importance. The result is a compelling and engaging motion picture that weds the tautness of a thriller with the depth and impact of a drama.

Insider, The (United States, 1999)

Ranked #8 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1999
Run Time: 2:37
U.S. Release Date: 1999-11-05
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1