Russell Crowe stands out in Michael Mann's heartbreaking film
Starring: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Renee Olstead, and Gina Gershon
Screenplay: Michael Mann and Eric Roth; based on the "Vanity Fair" article "The Man Who Knew Too Much" by Marie Brenner
Producers: Pieter Jan Brugge and Michael Mann
Director: Michael Mann
MPAA Rating: R for language and thematic elements
It was four years ago when CBS News' "60 Minutes," TV's highest-rated news program, suffered its darkest hour. Admittedly, I don't remember hearing much about the scandal, mostly due to ignorance (can you blame a 16 year old for not caring?). It was only a matter of time before someone in Hollywood recreated the events for the movie-going public. We can only be grateful that Michael Mann received the opportunity to produce it.
Certainly, The Insider isn't 100% accurate in its depiction of the events--the film even contains a disclaimer before the end credits stating that artistic license has been taken. Mann may use manipulation to enhance the story's effect, but he does maintain the integrity. There is an incredible amount of suspense that Mann milks from the proceedings. Arguably, investigate journalism isn't an exciting process; instead, it's a long, drawn-out one that takes time and patience to handle. Mann compresses and shifts the events around, just like any good filmmaker would. In the end, the emotions are upheld, the events have been slightly skewered, and the secret has been revealed.
The Insider begins with Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer for "60 Minutes", searching for and obtaining interviews with important people in newsworthy situations. One day, he receives a box full of technical books pertaining to the temperature of burning cigarettes and the like. Unable to comprehend anything in the manuals, he asks Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), head of research at Brown & Williamson, to translate everything. However, Bergman begins to believe Wigand has something more to say. Turns out, Wigand was fired from his job for being a little too vocal on certain issues. Unfortunately, Wigand has signed a confidentiality agreement with B&W that prohibits him from revealing secrets about his old employer.
Bergman believes Wigand may just be the key they need to unlock the tobacco industry's hidden agenda. The seven dwarfs (a.k.a. the seven CEOs of the major cigarette companies) revealed in Supreme Court that they believed cigarettes were not addictive. Wigand believes they perjured their testimonies. Bergman has to find a way around the confidentiality agreement, or jeopardize Wigand's family and future. Ultimately, it's Wigand's decision: does he tell all and go to jail, or does he stay silent and leave Americans in the dark? This question provides much of the film's moral drama as well as some surprising suspense.
Obviously he tells all, which occurs about a third of the way in. The rest of the film is propelled by CBS' decision not to air the interview, which Bergman fights to the bitter end. CBS apparently has a lucrative merger that could be jeopardized by a lawsuit from Brown & Williamson. Helen Caperelli (Gina Gershon) informs Bergman and Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) that they can not air the interview due to the impending suit--apparently, B&W can sue CBS for being a third party in the dissolvement of the cofidentiality agreement. After much soul-searching, CBS finally airs the interview.
The Insider portrays all of this with a certain sense of dread. CBS' decision to place financial profits before informing the public is a disaster that eventually leads to Bergman leaving CBS. Ironically, CBS held back information due to financial reasons, which is exactly the reason the tobacco industries held back their secrets. This film, however, is not necessarily about the tobacco industry, nor is it an anti-tobacco campaign. It's about Wigand himself. Wigand is depicted as a great American hero, something we sorely lack in today's greedy society. He personifies all that is good, putting his own life on the line to tell millions of people that cigarettes are "nicotine-delivery devices." Mann takes artistic liberties with this (Wigand's ex-wife has stated that she believes Jeffrey put the bullet in his mailbox himself) but for the film to work, we need to identify with Wigand. Wigand is a conflicted hero, and this only adds to the viewer's connection with him. Would you step forward to warn others at the cost of your family?
While Al Pacino is listed as being the star, it is Russell Crowe who steals the film. Crowe, who usually portrays conflicted, young heroes, commands the attention with energy, even at times when he seem without it. Crowe's performance is outstanding--we connect with him on an emotional basis. Pacino is at the top of his game here. His anger and his desperation is palpable. It is his performance that supports the final hour of the film. Christopher Plummer is also terrific, capturing the essence of Wallace. Diane Venora also gives a good performance as the sad housewife who can't stand the circumstances. It's a top notch cast, led by Crowe and Pacino. Their scenes together are among the most powerful in the film.
Admittedly, this is a surprisingly film from Michael Mann, who occasionally resorts to style-over-substance. Thankfully, his script is more than adequate, with some sharp dialogue and great characterizations. He infuses his film with a blue hue, making it seem cold and uncaring. Wigand's world is depressingly sad and bleak. Mann smartly doesn't focus on the lies of the tobacco companies--it would be easy to include footage of cancer patients dying. Instead, he examines the truth of today's companies, even those news programs that supposedly promote the truth. Money rules America, and Mann doesn't shy away from telling the truth.
The film isn't without flaws, however. The cinematography by Dante Spinotti is good, but the use of extreme close-ups and handheld camera work is occasionally jarring. Mann may have been going for a contrast of the corporate worlds and Wigand's life with the use of smooth and handheld cameras, but it doesn't quite work. Mann's decision to forget Wigand for the final hour of the film is also a mistake. Wigand is the character we connect with the most, and without him, we are merely watchers. When Wigand is on the screen, we experience everything as he does. Wigand's situation often evokes the tears of viewers, it seems a mistake to leave the focus on Bergman. Nevertheless, Pacino's performance is adequate enough to uphold our interest.
The Insider is rated R for language and some thematic elements. This is a fascinating look at the way money can corrupt even the best people. Wigand, himself, is even corrupted by the promise of money: tell us what you know, and we'll pay you. Corporations aren't ruled by people--they are ruled by money, and lots of it. This may be a depiction of a small time in the United States' history, but its themes can be interpreted for any time. It's a sad and disturbing look at America, but there is a glimmer of hope: his name is Wigand.
***1/2 out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie