Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall,
Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar, Stephen Tobolowsky, Colm Feore, Bruce McGill, Gina
Gershon, Michael Gambon, Rip Torn, Lynne Thigpen, Hallie Kate Eisenberg.
Written by Eric Roth & Michael Mann (based on the Vanity Fair article, "The Man Who Knew Too Much," by Marie Brenner).
Directed by Michael Mann.
Review by Dana Knowles.
The Insider opens with what appears to be a man in peril--a hostage, perhaps--blindfolded and seated in the back seat of a car as it winds its way through the streets of Beirut. The man is Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer for legendary CBS News Magazine 60 Minutes, but he is not a hostage. Rather, he's being transported to a meeting with a radical leader who wishes his location to remain unknown. The episode has little to do with the body of the story about to be told, but it's an apt opening image nonetheless. The Insider is about hostages, after all: men and women held hostage to the corporate entities they're paid to serve, a family held hostage to their fear of economic devastation and of forces more powerful than they, and truth held hostage to the fear of men with both the will to litigate and the unlimited resources to do so.
The hostage at the center of this tale is Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a former executive with the Brown & Williamson tobacco company who knows things that would surely make waves if publicized. By an odd coincidence, he is contacted by Bergman on an unrelated story, but soon lets slip that he's got one of his own to tell. Unfortunately, he is precluded from doing so by an confidentiality agreement he signed in order to receive a much-needed severance package upon his termination. Walking a tightrope of silence strung between duty to his family and personal honor regarding upholding the agreement he signed, Wigand ultimately loses his balance when he is shaken off that highwire by the aggressive and threatening tactics of his former employer. Driven as much by rage at their hubris as by any desire to unveil the unseemly truth about Big Tobacco, Wigand succumbs to Bergman's entreaties, eventually agreeing to go public in an interview with Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer). It's a decision that will alter his life irrevocably and entrap him in ways he likely could not have imagined. Bergman--as presented in the film, anyway--is a hostage as well. He's the medium-big news fish caught between his obligation to Wigand and his loyalty to his colleagues at CBS. Held captive by his own integrity, he will ultimately breach one trust to remain true to another.
In the spirit of All the President's Men, Michael Mann (Heat, The Last of the Mohicans) has concocted a journalistic thriller that wrings more drama out of newsgathering than should reasonably be expected. Stunningly shot by Dante Spinotti, the film is taut and engaging for most of its 2 1/2+ hour running time. Mann weaves various threads together into an engrossing tapestry, staging Wigand's walk through fire as a centerpiece around which the wheels of justice and journalism spin in fascinating detail, sometimes threatening to derail. The middle section lags a bit by focusing too often on Wigand's home life and his personal pain, which is an understandable (and perhaps even admirable) concession to the tragic cost of whistleblowing, but nonetheless robs the tale of its narrative snap on occasion. The lags are worth waiting out, however, as they're followed by a closing act that pulls everything together into a satisfying and captivating conclusion with regard to the many issues being raised as well as with regard to the characters we've followed.
For the second time in half a decade, Michael Mann has handed Al Pacino a wonderful role to play, its breadth and depth harkening back to his glory days in the '70s. While Wigand's stand is courageous and fraught with peril, Bergman is clearly the other hero of the piece, ultimately taking center stage as his own professional life begins to unravel. And though Pacino invests him with the sort of righteousness and sincerity necessary to elicit our admiration, he also brings a common sort of humanity to the guy, grounding him with an air of recognizable and believable ordinariness. He's the best sort of movie hero... a guy who could be us. (If only we were high-octane producers for the TV news magazine equivalent of the New York Times, that is.) Still, he's just a guy who does his job exceptionally well, only to be told that some of his best work will never come to fruition and that his source will be left twisting in the wind. Pacino makes the most of the role, never stepping over the line into caricature when Bergman engages in strident rants. He gives the character a calculated intelligence that allows him to maintain control and a sense of humor, even when pressed to the wall. There's none of that patented Pacino bombast on view here, and it's a welcome treat for those of us who remember when he could routinely settle down and act, igniting the screen with quiet intensity rather than burning it down with histrionics.
Crowe is equally good as Wigand, a man whose external blankness only barely masks his indignance and his sorrow as his life comes unglued before his eyes. While the foreground circumstances fuel his immediate emotional crises, there's always a sense of some deeper level of contemplation going on within him... as if he's measuring his life and his choices on a grander scale, wondering how he came to put himself in this position in the first place. Wigand is far more interesting than you'd expect from a story like this. He's complicated and muddled, often vacillating between positions and then leaping into the fray on what appears to be impulse. He's not always likable, but we can still see a decent man at his core. And there's no doubt whatsoever that he does not deserve the anguish and the losses that he sustains in the course of the film.
The supporting cast is full of wonderful character actors, all of whom contribute excellent bits and pieces that add flavor and edge to the whole. Plummer mimics Mike Wallace's vocal cadences and body language with great aplomb, pulling off a difficult task (conjuring the essence of a very familiar man) with grace and humor. Equally notable are Philip Baker Hall (Don Hewitt), Colm Feore, Bruce McGill, Gina Gershon, and Michael Gambon. The two women who figure most prominently are played by actresses I'm not particularly wild about, Diane Venora (Wigand's wife) and Lindsay Crouse (Bergman's wife). Crouse (Places in the Heart, House of Games) is far better here than usual, coming off as warm and intelligent, though her scenes are few and brief. And Venora (Bird, Heat) does adequate (if frequently overwrought) work in her role, though I still can't count myself a fan.
Mann has always been a distinct presence behind the camera, favoring close-ups and artfully complex shots to suck the audience into his world and keep them on the edges of their seats. As in the magnificent Heat, he gives us more characters and more story in The Insider than most filmmakers would dare to foist upon the viewer, managing somehow to keep it all flowing almost without a hitch. Even when you think you're somewhat lost, he'll reel you back in and tie up loose ends before the lights come up, rewarding patience and attention in satisfying ways. Ably supported by such fine performances, Mann's visual style is riveting, making something as uneventful as an exchange of faxes seem as gripping as a high-speed chase.
Though the surface issues at hand in <i>The Insider</i> aren't inherently shocking (Tobacco companies lie! Nicotine is addictive! Journalists are often compromised!), it is the subtext that provides the film with gravity. Wigand and Bergman are heroic because they are on the side of truth regarding important issues, but what makes them tragic and interesting is the concept that they illustrate. In this world, it is the unusual man or woman who dares to do the right thing and face the resistance and losses that will surely follow. Constrained as we are by our need to feel secure, normal people do not rock the boat, especially if we believe that there is something important at risk. The difference between these "heroes" and those who do nothing is that they come to value justice and integrity above their own private security and comforts. It's this human drama at the center of the bigger story that ultimately resonates and makes this a film worth seeing. Regardless of one's interest in the tobacco scandal or the frailties of corporate journalism or the terrorism inherent in misuse of our judicial system, the process by which two men come to terms with their shared need to stand up to powers greater than themselves is classic drama. Mann taps into that process and that need in an exciting and compelling way, reminding us that the world is full of Goliaths and woefully short on Davids. And subtly urging us wonder to what degree our own choices make that our reality in the first place. The Insider may not be groundbreaking in terms of its muckraking revelations or its cinematic achievements, but it is an exceptionally well-crafted, well-acted drama whose themes are as vital today as ever.
Review © November 1999 by AboutFilm.Com
and the author.
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