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The Insider (1999)

In the beginning of Michael Mann's The Insider, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer for TV's "60 Minutes," is trying to convince Iran's Sheikh Fadlallah to do an interview. "We are the highest rated, most respected news show in America," Bergman tells the Sheik. By the end of the film, "60 Minutes" is still the highest rated, most respected news show in America, but a few deserved chinks have been put in their armor.

Written by:
Eric Roth
Michael Mann
(from the article by Marie Brenner)

Directed by:
Michael Mann

Starring:
Al Pacino
Russell Crowe
Christopher Plummer
Diane Venora
Philip Baker Hall
Lindsay Crouse
Debi Mazar
Bruce McGill
Gina Gershon
Rip Torn
Pete Hamill

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actor (Crowe)
Best Screenplay
Best Cinematography
Best Editing
Best Sound

Quote:
"Corporate has some questions."

The Insider is really a tale of two heroes: Bergman, a sharp, left-leaning producer, and Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a quiet, former research scientist (and corporate vice-president) at the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company. Bergman calls Wigand about another matter — deciphering research materials from Philip Morris — but is immediately rebuffed, which of course only piques his interest. "I can't talk to you," Wigand faxes Bergman, who quickly faxes back, "Can't talk to me? Won't talk to me? Don't want to talk to me?" Wigand responds — as Bergman impatiently pulls the message out of the fax — "Can't. Won't. Don't want to." Only the first of these responses is true, though — he's signed a corporate confidentiality agreement — and even then Bergman eventually draws him out.

The character of Jeffrey Wigand is fascinating (Crowe deserved his Oscar nomination). He's far from your typical cinematic hero. "Ordinary people under extraordinary pressure," is how Bergman describes Wigand, while Crowe, in a post-production interview, calls him "an ordinary bloke." He's dumpy, unathletic, although apparently a good golfer. He doesn't communicate well with his wife, Liane (Diane Verona), but he's better with his daughters, constantly educating them. The eldest suffers from acute asthma, and during an attack, he calmly describes what is happening to her and why. While chasing off real or imaginary backyard stalkers, he informs his youngest that the noise she heard was merely a raccoon, a nocturnal creature, and then tells her what "nocturnal" means. There's a great scene where Brown & Williamson's CEO, Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon), while demanding an addendum to Wigand's confidentiality agreement, describes Wigand to the lawyers seated behind Wigand. "I've never seen anyone concentrate like Jeffrey," he says with slick, southern charm. "It's positively spooky how he can concentrate."

Wigand is also not without ego. One of these lawyers refers to him as Mr. Wigand, and Wigand turns in his chair and almost whispers, "Doctor." He does not have great social skills; when pushed, he pushes back. Essentially Brown & Williamson push him into the arms of "60 Minutes." But there are consequences for his high principles. During the course of the film he loses his high-paying job, is forced to move from his high-priced house, is stalked and threatened and served with a gag order; his wife leaves him, his name is dragged through the mud, and he winds up living alone in a hotel room. And then everything he worked for, everything he sacrificed for, may not happen anyway. That is, "60 Minutes" may not air his whistle-blowing interview.

This is where Lowell Bergman becomes a hero. Being a hero involves sacrifice, and at this point in the film Wigand has sacrificed everything, Bergman nothing. But when CBS Corporate balks at airing the Wigand interview, and Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace agree, Bergman betrays them to get his story on the air.

If it isn't apparent yet, I absolutely loved this movie. It's All the President's Men for the '90s, with Wigand a kind of stoic Woodward, and Bergman a flashy, fast-talking Bernstein. (The initials work even if the occupations don't.)

There's attention to detail here. Sure, Bergman is interested in Wigand, but throughout you see him working on other stories: the Iranian Sheikh interview, Canadian mounties, New Orleans beat cops, a NY bank money-laundering scheme. He's always on the go. Meanwhile, you feel the pressure on Wigand. There are memorable minor characters, from Christopher Plummer's excellent Mike Wallace ("Mike? Mike? Try Mr. Wallace.") to Mississippi attorney Ron Motley (played with scene-stealing panache by Bruce McGill), who explodes with rage at a tobacco attorney during Wigand's deposition. The music, from Gustavo Santaolalla's mandolin to Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke's operatic flights, is gorgeous. There are a few moments of unnecessary slow-motion flashiness, and Pacino can seem a little self-righteously over-the-top in that "The whole system's out of order!" way of his. ("Well, then fire my ass!" he tells Don Hewitt at one point.) One also wonders why Bergman is in Mississippi before the deposition. He doesn't need to be there, and Pacino doesn't need more screentime. What's the point? But at least now I can forgive director Michael Mann for creating "Miami Vice" because he's given us this.

Endnote: There are other parallels to All the President's Men. Lindsay Crouse, who plays Bergman's wife, also played Kay Eddy, the Washington Post reporter who provided Woodward and Bernstein with the list of people who worked for the Committee to Re-Elect the President. More important: just as Woodward and Bernstein struggled to tell the public about corruption, so Wigand and Bergman struggle here. The difference is the enemy. In the '70s, it was the government (more accurately: the Nixon Administration). In the '90s, it's the corporation. Not just Big Tobacco either. The more worrisome corporation is CBS, because they tell us how the world is. The Insider is a great anti-corporate movie but with this proviso: we won this battle, thanks to Wigand and Bergman, but we're sure as hell losing the war.

—January 22, 2001

© 2001 Erik Lundegaard