The Insider (1999)

The Insider (1999) November 24, 2008

‘Tis the season to toss aside what other people think of you, do what you feel, and devil-may-care who gets hurt in the process.

At least, that’s what the movies will tell you.

The leading men onscreen this season (Lester Birnam of American Beauty, Tyler Durden and “Jack” of Fight Club, Craig and Lottie of Being John Malkovich) are not generous people. They are not humble. They’re not the kind of people to give up their own dreams for the good of others. They’re distinctly American — “I have a right to pursue my own happiness my desires, and you’d better not get in my way.”

The Insider couldn’t come at a better time. 1999 finally has a movie where men have bigger things on their minds than just making themselves happy. And those heroes are Jeffrey Wigand, who gave the press the evidence that Big Tobacco was intentionally making cigarettes addictive, and Lowell Bergman, the producer with the guts to put his career on the line and run the story.

After I caught a screening, a friend of mine asked, “What on earth makes The Insider interesting? What drew that powerful cast to such a mundane, already-worked-over subject.” Good question. Haven’t we had enough Oliver-Stone-esque movies about conspiracies and corporate dishonesty? It was in the newspapers just two years ago… why bother re-living it in a movie?

But Michael Mann’s 157-minute Event Movie is much more than an exploration of a media scandal. Mann found a story about a drama relevant to all of us: Trust between friends during times of hardship. This is a war movie. The big strikes are lawsuits. The battlefields are men’s consciences. And the heroes are putting themselves on the front lines for the sake of telling the truth. The casualties? Integrity and reputation. Family. Lifestyle. Futures and dreams.

Some bicker about this movie’s deviations from historical detail, but since I can’t ever know what really happened I’m more concerned about storytelling (see footnote*). In this telling of the story, Jeffrey Wigand is fired from his job as a scientist for Big Tobacco when he refuses to participate in a cover-up of unethical practices. He walks away from his job, hoping to put it behind him. But his conscience is not silent, and he attempts to bring his story to the press. His former employers are watching, and they mean to hold him accountable to a confidentiality agreement. When he slyly moves outside the territory of the agreement, they get nasty. And dangerous.

It may be glamour and glory that draws Lowell Bergman to Jeffrey Wigand’s predicament in the first place, but soon he learns that a man’s mind, heart, and home are at risk here. Fortunately, Bergman is a man of some conscience; he isn’t going to use Wigand as a source and then abandon him to his miserable fate.

Bergman is Wigand’s hope of making something good out of a bad situation. And so the two become friends as they prepare a story for Mike Wallace to run on 60 Minutes. But when Big Tobacco threatens 60 Minutes, and it looks like Wigand is suffering for a lost cause, Bergman digs in his heels and things get really interesting.

No actors could have brought more passion to the lead roles of this film. Al Pacino is at his very best as Bergman. He’s remarkably restrained, but when the CBS executives begin to cut ties to him and his efforts to expose Big Tobacco’s lies, he summons up that high-caliber rage that perhaps only DeNiro could have matched. His energy is the adrenalin of the movie.

And Russell Crowe’s turn as Jeffrey Wigand is the movie’s sweat and blood. Crowe continues to outdo himself on screen. Hold this performance up to his work in L.A. Confidential, Mystery, Alaska, or The Quick and the Dead, and you won’t believe it’s the same man. Watching him here is like watching the wax melt on a candle, as Wigand slowly crumbles under the pressure of his moral dilemmas. He moves from being a suit to being a vulnerable, traumatized human being, staring out at the ocean as though waiting for an answer from God.

In the heated confrontations and in the explosive boardroom debates, Christopher Plummer comes close to stealing the movie. Plummer portrays 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace as a fearless investigative reporter — he’s as unafraid to challenge a Middle Eastern warlord during an interview as he is to stand up to his corporate bosses and remind them that he’s what brings them good ratings.

All three of these guys deserve Oscars when March gets here.

Michael Mann knows the talent he’s got in front of him. He employs the most daring use of close-ups I’ve seen since the films of Krzystof Kieslowski. He pans across the faces of these beleaguered warriors the way Spielberg’s camera takes in battlefields in Saving Private Ryan. Cinematographer Spinotti frequently guides the camera around the back of his actor’s heads, and then zooms in slowly to that place at the base of the skull where tension collects. You get the feeling that all of these suffering souls need a good neck massage to help relieve the stress.

By literally looking over the shoulders of Wigand and Bergman, we are unable to escape wondering what we would do if we were in their shoes. Would we compromise? Would we shut up when threatened? Or would we put our family members up to be sacrificed on the altar of truth, and watch as all the sordid bits of our past brought out on the evening news in a smear campaign?

Mann alternates pregnant pauses with sequences of swift exhilarating action. He makes a legal deposition and a cell-phone conversation as intense as the brilliant shootout he choreographed in his cops-and-robbers classic Heat. It made 2 ½ hours of hushed conversations feel like a 90-minute action movie.

What a moviegoing season it is! Such originality, and so many great performances! But among such memorable films, we have one that excels beyond technique, and that urges us on to more than just serving ourselves. The Insider is a movie that’s worth a full-price ticket. I had read the papers. I knew the story. And yet this film moved, exhausted, and inspired me. That’s more than any about any other film I’ve seen in the last six months.

Footnote:

*A recent New York Times article ran an update that claimed the film’s portrayal of Mike Wallace’s involvement is fairly accurate, except at one point in the film Wallace is goaded to make the right choice, where he still claims he made the right choice to begin with.

 


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