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The Insider

Review by KJ Doughton
Posted 19 November 1999


Directed by Michael Mann

 Starring Al Pacino, 
Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, 
Diane Venora, and Philip Baker Hall

Written by Marie Brenner
 and Eric Roth

Director Tim Burton, creator of such alienated icons as Edward Scissorhands, recently stated that monsters didn’t scare him.  “I find real people to be much more frightening,” he confessed during a  television interview.  I’ll bet that Jeffrey Wigand, the tortured hero of Michael Mann’s gut-wrenching The Insider, could identify with such a statement.  On the rocky trail to his appearance on a televised 60 Minutes segment exposing nasty secrets about the tobacco industry, Wigand loses his job, struggles through a divorce, receives death threats, is targeted by a ruthless smear campaign, and is haunted by the possibility of incarceration.  Meanwhile, his nemesis is a villainous den of arrogant tobacco kingpins. Like obese lions gnawing on an elk carcass, these bloodless suits have been at the top of the corporate food chain for way too long.  When a fly in the ointment like Wigand comes along, they’ll pause from their decadent feast just long enough to ruin his life.  Indeed, these real-life ghouls are like Big-Business Freddy Kruegers.

The fact that Michael Mann can project the cold, arrogant power of these Big Tobacco bullies with as much dread and suspense as a physical thriller like Blood Simple or Straw Dogs is testimony to his greatness as a director.  No shootings, car chases, or climactic fistfights are found anywhere within The Insider’s 148 minute running time, but the tension is nearly unbearable. Unlike most heavily plotted films based on true incidents, Mann doesn’t sacrifice characterization and emotions to iron out the complex storyline. He packs The Insider with a sleek, trademark visual style that has characterized all of his films, from 1981’s Thief through the recent Heat.  And even though he’s come a long way from the stylized swimming pool ‘n palm tree imagery that defined his Miami Vice television series, there’s a visual elegance to The Insider that brands the film unmistakable Mann.  I doubt there’s another director around who could wrench tension -- and aesthetic beauty -- out of a scene in which the hero hits golf balls at an after-dark driving range. 

The Insider follows Wigand (played by LA Confidential’s Russell Crowe) home after the chemist is fired from the laboratories of Brown & Williamson. Judging from his sprawling home and sports car, it’s clear that the tobacco giant has been reimbursing him handsomely. That makes the news that he’s been terminated particularly sobering to his resentful, unsympathetic wife Liane (Diane Venora).  “This is where my babies were born,” she laments after they sell the house and walk its empty hallways one last time.

“It will be a smaller setup,” he reassures her. “Simpler and easier. Can you imagine me coming home from a job and feeling good about my day?”

Indeed, job satisfaction has been in short supply for the frustrated doctor.  During his role with Brown & Williamson, Wigand was privy to the company’s methods for making their tobacco more addictive. His conscience is jolted when he watches his bosses on television, lying under oath to congress and denying that their wares were additive at all.  When Wigand shows his disapproval of carcinogenic substances being dumped into the company’s “nicotine delivery systems” (corporate slang for cigarettes) to create an even more efficient high, he’s unceremoniously fired. And what is his crime? “Poor communication skills”, according to a corporate memo.

Hungry for cash, Wigand accepts work as a transcriber of tobacco company documents required for a story on fire safety.  But when he learns that the employer is 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (an intense Al Pacino), the out-of-luck job-hunter is initially squeamish. There’s a humorous passage where Bergman’s numerous attempts to contact Wigand are squashed: when phone calls are ignored by his paranoid quarry, the stubborn producer bombards Wigand with a series of faxes. It’s like a courtship between an aggressive suitor and a bashful girl, as the inked requests roll out of Wigand’s printer as fast as he can send dismissing retorts back to Bergman. Call it “dueling faxes”.

Eventually, the fired chemist meets Bergman and takes the transcription job. As time passes, he opens up to Bergman about his past.  There’s a shadowy sense of dread that follows their meetings: while the two men sit in a parked car overlooking a crowded bay, boats cut back and forth in the periphery, like sailing snoops. In a hotel room, Wigand shifts a paranoid glance onto a room service employee.  Wigand is keenly aware that he’s unable to reveal any information related to his Brown & Williamson discoveries, having signed a confidentiality agreement. 

But Bergman, with his endless list of contacts and savvy nose for information, puts his journalistic skills together to find a way that Wigand can tell his story without breaching the agreement.  Meanwhile, he discusses the possibility of a tobacco expose with his legendary cronies at 60 Minutes.  There’s Mike Wallace, interviewer par excellence, played by Christopher Plummer as a CBS professional who ultimately finds that his loyalties are torn between truth and the network. Standing alongside him is 60 Minutes boss Don Hewitt (Boogie Nights’ Phillip Baker Hall), whose attempts to make well-rounded, practical business decisions eventually come into conflict with Bergman’s more radical, renegade idealism.  They’re all in agreement that Big Tobacco will do all in their power to fight such negative coverage.  As one CBS executive describes, “they’ve got the endless checkbook -- they’ll spend you to death.”

At this point, The Insider goes into frenzied overdrive: Wigand agrees to the story, as e-mails unveil violent threats and a bullet is placed in his mailbox as a silent reminder to keep quiet  -- or else. Meanwhile, the tormented chemist testifies at a key Mississippi lawsuit, knowing that the consequences might include prison time.  It all reaches a nail-biting crescendo, as 60 Minutes caves in on the story, for fear that a networking-crushing lawsuit will result.  In a particularly harrowing scene, a suicidal Wigand sits in a hotel room, hallucinating about his two daughters and their lost opportunity to see his courageous expose, as CBS runs a watered-down variation of the tobacco story, minus his interview. In Wigand’s eyes, this was to be his redemption. When the story doesn’t materialize, it’s heartbreaking.

Al Pacino is a perfect choice for Bergman: his world-weary, puppy-dog eyes and intuitively friendly manner convince viewers of this producer’s ability to earn the trust of initially apprehensive interview subjects.  But when his story is diluted by corporate politics, those chameleonic eyes bug out and burn holes through his adversaries. There are few movie going pleasures that top the sight of a pissed-off Pacino going ballistic, and a couple of blowouts here join an impressive list of tirades from his earlier roles in Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, And Justice For All, and the maniacal Scarface. 

Meanwhile, Crowe proves himself to be a man of many faces.  Almost unrecognizable, with glasses perched atop doughy cheeks, Crowe shows none of the obvious macho baggage called for by his past roles in LA Confidential, Romper Stomper, and Mystery, Alaska. This Australian powerhouse shifts shapes as effortlessly as fellow chameleons Edward Norton and Daniel Day Lewis. He plays Wigand as a man barely able to harness his rage at corporate dishonesty.  Indeed, he’d almost strike one as a potential candidate for Brad Pitt’s angry band of Fight Club anarchists. But Wigand emerges as a principled “man of science”, even under the pressure of The Insider’s brutal trial by fire.

Michael Mann has never strayed this far from kinetic, violence-driven subject matter.  Like John Woo, Mann’s past mayhem was so meticulously staged that it took on a strange beauty.  When Daniel Day Lewis sprinted through a maze of brutal Indians on the warfare in Last of The Mohicans, the vision was equal parts gruesome and hypnotic.  A downtown shootout between high-tech thieves and determined cops in Heat played out like a ballistic ballet.  With The Insider, he creates a less obvious thriller: its internal, psychological violence chips away at your nerves like a chinese water torture.  But ultimately, its heroes make the experience bearable. The Insider is one of the year’s best films.

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