By Marc S. Sanders
When I think of Michael Mann’s The Insider from 1999, I cannot get over how deep it is with its storytelling. Inspired by true events and based upon a Vanity Fair article, I consider the adjective “deep” because it’s really a one-story trajectory, but it covers so many different facets; so many different industries and how they operate and sometimes overlap with one another. The tobacco industry, journalism in both television and print, state law and even the deterioration of an American household. Michael Mann shows how one simple action can balloon into something bigger affecting others all at once. You gotta get through one thing before you swim deeper into the bottomless pool of policy, contracts, ethics and threats.
Russell Crowe portrays Jeffrey Wigand, a top leading chemist with the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company. Upon realizing that he has detrimental information should it go public, the company fires him and compels him to sign a confidentiality agreement not to reveal any of his research or activities while in service to them. That won’t suffice for the incredibly powerful tobacco company though, as Dr. Wigand receives threats that include disturbing emails, possible prowlers and a bullet that mysteriously turns up in his mail box.
Wigand crosses paths with Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer with 60 Minutes at CBS Television. Bergman works often with famed interviewer Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer, who should have been nominated, much less won an Oscar). Wigand gets more and more motivated to go on Bergman’s show and tell everything about how the tobacco industry manipulates cigarette manufacturing to make it all the more addicting.
Bergman wants the story but he wants to play it carefully. Toeing the the line of maintaining Wigand’s confidentiality agreement might require a deposition by the scientist in a state courtroom so that his testimony will be public record. In other words, get a state to subpoena him and then the interview can happen because what Wigand says in an interview is already public record.
It’s complicated. Not so much for the viewer though. It’s complicated for Jeffrey Wigand. Russell Crowe emotes his rock and hard place situation with terrible anguish and a short temper. Michael Mann gets great closeups that capture the stress like deep wrinkles and dark circles under the eyes along with pale white skin, a big gut, wrinkled dress shirts, and rough shaves. The stress also carries over to his southern gentile wife (Diane Venora in an entirely different role from Mann’s Heat) and his two girls. They are collateral damage here. Wigand could also lose medical coverage on top of his salary and the threats of civil liability. Jeffrey Wigand is an ant under the very large heel of Big Tobacco.
Lowell Bergman also has obstacles from within his own camp. Journalistic integrity is tested with Wigand’s interview. It’d almost be better if Wigand was lying. That way Big Tobacco could not sue CBS for breach of a confidentiality contract. The more truth he tells, the greater the liability. Considering that CBS Corporate is in the middle of a buyout that could be very profitable for a select few, CBS is disregarding Bergman’s reputation for bringing in experts and informants that have made 60 Minutes the most watched news program on television.
These are the dilemmas that comprise Mann’s near three-hour film. What’s as interesting is the in between material. With Mann sometimes shooting with a documentary like approach, we catch glimpses of how a journalist will pass a colleague in a rotating lobby door and they’ll make arrangements to exchange one story in a time slot for another. These are mere seconds, but it paints a colorful setting that the news never sleeps. We see how Big Tobacco (represented by a slimy Michael Gambon) can subtly intimidate one man in a corporate office. We see a trio of lawyers take a phone call from a private jet they are piloting to consider Wigand as a material witness. We see how one of those lawyers (Bruce McGill) will handle an objection during his questioning of a witness (an unforgettable scene). We see how Wigand must adjust with his family to downgrade to a smaller home with old dusty kitchen cabinets and how it all gradually weighs down his marriage. We see how Bergman has to be covert with meeting Wigand in a hotel lobby. We also see how Big Tobacco can issue a smear campaign and how Bergman has to go across the street to a newspaper colleague to first ask for a deadline of print to be pushed back, and later how he grants a story to the paper to reveal shady dealings and how to refute what’s already been falsely claimed. There’s even a deal that indirectly involves the infamous Unabomber. It’s these little details that keep the film’s pulse alive.
Even before all of this begins, Mann demonstrates the lengths Bergman and Wallace will go to for 60 Minutes. They go deep into the Middle East to get an exclusive interview with the Head Sheik for the Hezbollah terrorist group. Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace is marvelous here as he stands up against an irate bodyguard strapped with a machine gun to argue about how close he will sit next to the Sheik. If you want the story, the true story, you have to be genuine and be fearless with risk.
I can’t say enough good things about The Insider. It’s truly an education to watch the film with blazing cinematography in blues and grey hues from Dante Spinotti. Mann is always known for his coolness with film, dating all the way back to the MTV vibe of Miami Vice to Thief with James Caan, and his LA crime drama Heat. The tradition carries on here.
As well, the dialogue is so crisp from a script by Mann and Eric Roth. Pacino is memorably given an opportunity to sum up the machinations of CBS corporate in the third act of the film. The Mike Wallace character is not written as a television personality with a cue card. He’s got real, good, seasoned intelligence in his words. Plummer just enhances the script.
The Insider ranks at the top of the list of films focused on journalism next to features like Sidney Lumet’s Network, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight and Alan J Pakula’s All The President’s Men. It explores the danger that can come from truths that need to be told which others never want disclosed. It covers the methods by which parties are recruited to help get the truth and the lengths operatives will go to, to squash a story.
The Insider is a gripping, magnificent film.