The Insider Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2000

What is it that he has to say that threatens these people?
Well, it isn't that cigarettes are bad for you.
Russell Crowe

For three decades, the CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes" has been a bastion for responsible reporting and journalistic integrity, built on the reputation of its reporters and producers uncovering the truth without compromise. However, the show's long-standing shining example was called into question on November 9th, 1995 when the New York Times broke with a story that "60 Minutes" would not be airing a revealing interview with an ex-tobacco executive on an upcoming show. Even more damning was the revelation that the decision had come from CBS corporate officers, who were concerned about CBS being sued by Brown & Williamson, the third largest tobacco company in the United States, which would have jeopardized an impending $5.4 billion merger deal with the Westinghouse Electric Corporation-- a deal which several CBS corporate officers would have profited from. Though CBS News eventually reconsidered their decision, the reputation of "60 Minutes" had been indelibly tarnished.

This is the basis for "The Insider", director Michael Mann's ("Heat") fictionalized account of the events leading up to the long-running news programs' darkest hour. The story starts in 1993, and the ex-tobacco executive is Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe of "L.A. Confidential"), the Vice-President of Research at Brown & Williamson, who is fired by the CEO (Michael Gambon of "Wings of the Dove") for 'poor communication skills'. However, before he is shown the door, he is ordered to sign a confidentiality agreement in order to receive his severance pay and continued health benefits.

You go public and thirty million people hear what you got to say... nothing, I mean nothing, will ever be the same.
Al Pacino

The following year, Wigand is hired as a consultant by "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino, seen recently in "Any Given Sunday") to interpret some internal Philip Morris documents on the 'fire safe' cigarette research program. As he becomes familiar with Wigand, Bergman senses that this ex-tobacco exec harbors some damning secrets about the tobacco industry, yet cannot disclose them due to the confidentiality agreement he has signed. However, Bergman is able to get around the confidentiality agreement by having Wigand subpoenaed for a class action suit underway in the state of Mississippi, which would then allow the ex-tobacco exec to be interviewed on national television. Despite the cessation of his severance pay, a number of death threats aimed at himself and his family, and the possibility of going to jail for violating a gag order, Wigand becomes a whistleblower. Both in a deposition and on an interview with veteran reporter Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer of "12 Monkeys"), Wigand provides unflattering testimony on what tobacco companies have known all along about their products all along and how they have manipulated them to increase sales.

They have no right to hide behind a corporate agreement... he can talk, and we can air it!

Unfortunately, Wigand's testimony may never be heard by the American public, as CBS corporate interests (represented by Gina Gershon of "Face/Off") decide not to air the controversial interview for fear of being caught in the crossfire of a multi-billion lawsuit by Brown & Williamson. Wigand, who has given up almost everything to come forward, is left hung out to dry, feeling betrayed by the producer who convinced him to testify. And Bergman, disgusted by how CBS News has caved in to corporate concerns, finds that he must become a whistleblower himself, as he fights to have Wigand's story heard and CBS' shameful decision made public.

Are you a businessman or are you a newsman?
Crowe and Christopher Plummer

In the weeks leading up to the release of "The Insider", there was much controversy over the veracity of events portrayed in the film, particularly from Mike Wallace, who has been outspoken about how negatively he is portrayed in the film-- an arrogant man who cares more about his 'legacy' than his journalistic pride. Director Michael Mann and scribe Eric Roth ("The Postman") used the "Vanity Fair" article "The Man Who Knew Too Much" as source material, and brought Lowell Bergman on board as a consultant. Not surprisingly, the story is told mainly from Bergman's perspective, as he is the protagonist of the story. Thus, dramatic liberties were taken with what actually happened, and Bergman was made a more integral part of the events that transpired. Thus, Wallace's opposition to the interview being aired, Bergman's role in having Wigand subpoenaed for the Mississippi class action suit, Bergman's efforts in countering a Brown & Williamson media smear campaign, and the death threats have all been exaggerated. But despite the liberties taken to heighten the dramatic intensity of the story, overall, "The Insider" remains true to the spirit of the real-life events-- an ex-tobacco executive sacrificed everything he had to tell the truth, only to be betrayed by the very people who convinced him to blow the whistle.

The film's first half is arguably the strongest, as the story focuses on Wigand, who is the actual 'hero' and emotional focal point of the story.. He is portrayed as a somewhat quiet and timid man with a short temper, and each minute of screen-time reveals yet another facet of this fascinating character. We see Wigand trying to rebuild his life after being fired from his highly-paid position in Brown & Williamson, the concern he has for providing for his family, the torturous decision he must make on whether or not to go public, and the constant level of fear and paranoia he experiences every waking minute. As superbly and credibly portrayed by Crowe, Wigand is an ordinary man torn apart by extraordinary circumstances. Mann further heightens Wigand's paranoid perceptions with some stunning documentary-style cinematography that brings an eerie unreality to his surroundings, while using a subdued color pallet to imply his sense of impending dread.

He's only the key witness in the biggest public health reform issue in U.S. history. Does he go on television to tell the truth? Yes. Is it newsworthy? Yes. Are we going to air it? Of course not. Why? Because he's not telling the truth? No... because he is telling the truth and the more truth he tells, the worse it gets.

Then the film shifts gears and Wigand, with whom the audience has become emotionally invested with, disappears. Instead, the story focuses on Pacino's character, as Bregman tries to undo the damage done by CBS' ill-founded decision. And though Pacino lends his legendary intensity to playing the lone crusader, theabsence of Crowe's character is noticeable, thereby diminishing the emotional intensity of the film's second half. Though a nice parallel is established between Wigand and Bregman, who are both compelled to become whistleblowers in their respective industries, the sense of urgency in Bregman's maverick action is somewhat diminished by the fact that he is portrayed as having less at stake than Wigand-- he still has his job, his family, and several resources at his command.

This whole thing will blow over in fifteen minutes.
No, that's fame. Fame lasts fifteen minutes. Infamy lasts a little longer.
The real Jeffrey Wigand, Crowe, Pacino, and the real Lowell Bregman

Aside from Crowe and Pacino, "The Insider" has a number of memorable performances that add some credibility to the proceedings. Plummer, who portrays the much-derided representation of Mike Wallace, does an impressive job of adopting the veteran reporter's characteristic tics and speaking patterns, as well as showing the two conflicting sides of his character, a raging egomaniac and true believer of 'journalistic integrity'. Diane Venora ("William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet") is solid as Wigand's wife, Colm Feore ("The Red Violin") is credible as a lawyer involved in the Mississippi lawsuit, and Bruce McGill ("Rosewood") has a standout scene as another lawyer during Wigand's deposition.

Despite the dramatic liberties taken by the script and a narrative misstep in the film's second half, "The Insider" combines well fleshed-out characters, sharp writing, skilled direction, and technical brilliance to create a powerful and compelling piece of filmmaking. Though it may not be a purveyor of historical fact, the emotional truth behind the actual events resonates throughout the "The Insider", and makes it unquestionably one of the top films of 1999.

Images courtesy of Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

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