Michael Mann’s “The Insider” is a compelling motion picture thanks, not only to the subject matter and its execution, but to the acting prowesses of Al Pacino and Russell Crowe. Their exceptional portrayals of the real-life figures of CBS’ 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman and tobacco company whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, respectively, are finely tuned springs ready to explode (and sometimes they do) but still, each maintains a sense of restraint that sings “Oscar”.
Mann co-authored the screenplay with Eric Roth from a Vanity Fair article about the turmoil surrounding CBS’ efforts to get Wigand, a former executive for Brown & Williamson, to spill his guts about the dangers of cigarette smoking. Wigand was prevented from talking because of the confidentiality agreements he signed prior to his firing for his refusal to work with a known carcinogen as a nicotine enhancer.
Wigand is warned that if he talks, he stands to lose his severance pay as well as his family’s health benefits, something he’s unwilling to jeopardize in view of his daughter’s health problems. But soon his life and that of his family’s is being threatened. His marriage begins to collapse and he’s being approached by the Attorney General for the state of Mississippi who has initiated a lawsuit against the tobacco companies.
You can see Wigand being squeezed from every direction including his own conscience and feel the torment he must have felt in trying to decide what best to do: open up or shut up. Finally, with great prodding on the part of Bergman who begs Wigand to trust him, that all in the end will be okay, Wigand agrees to talk. He does it in a Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) interview and does it before a Mississippi court despite a Kentucky gag order to respect his confidentiality agreements. He does it at peril for his life because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the stuff that true heroes are made of.
And after Wigand puts everything on the line, what does CBS do? It shelves his story in fear of a large lawsuit by Brown & Williamson for complicity in having Wigand break his confidentiality agreements. At the time, CBS was up for sale to Westinghouse and a major lawsuit would have wrecked havoc on the proceedings and accordingly caused lots of players in the news division and at the corporate level to lose large sums of money, plus bankrupted the company. It was journalism’s darkest hour that eventually got revealed in a New York Times story that Bergman helped plant in revenge for CBS’ dickering with the truth and for selling out the most important source for the decade’s most important story.
There’s been controversy surrounding this film from the over-played heroism of Bergman who later quit his job to CBS News’ exec Don Hewitt’s and reporter Mike Wallace’s caving in to corporate interference (read “Censorship”), but this is super fine drama. I will never be able to watch Mike Wallace in the same way as I had previously thanks to Plummer’s biting portrayal of him as a pampered and pompous ass. Nor, for that matter, can I watch 60 Minutes the same way, remembering that they had betrayed American’s trust in them. Bergman said it well when he doubted the existence of a free press. When journalists are the patsies of the corporations then indeed, nothing is sacred and everything can be tainted.
In trying to give this film a sense of urgency (which it already had) and grandeur (which it’s subject matter did not need), Mann incorporated some strange direction such as the use of thematic “middle eastern” music (I felt as if he thought he was remaking “Gandhi” and the use of superfluous shots: blurry feet, blurry raindrops on blurry car windows, close-ups of the backs of people’s heads and his favorites – the long lens and slow-motion shots he used extensively in “Heat”. They didn’t belong. They were obvious and therefore took me out of the story each and every time. Other than that, this is a keenly made drama worth watching for the history as much for the superb acting!
Lotta says “The Insider” is an “issues” movie that definitely works.