The Insider (review)

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Up Close and Personal

It’s amazing what fabulous performances can do for a film. The Insider could have been long, slow, and excruciatingly dull. Instead — thanks to Al Pacino and Russell Crowe — it’s long, slow, and compelling.

Working more as a mood piece than a journalistic exposé, The Insider draws you in with an examination of what the machinations of nefarious, if not quite illegal, corporate underworlds do to individuals. Where a movie like All the President’s Men — to which The Insider has been compared — wants to get us riled up and angry for society as a whole, The Insider can’t really work on that level, even if that was the intention of director Michael Mann and writer Eric Roth. Too much has changed since the 70s. Watergate was shocking, I guess. (I, in kindergarten at the time, had other more pressing concerns, like learning to tie my shoes.) But: Tobacco executives lying to Congress? Network lawyers dictating the content of a television news program? It’d be surprising if those things weren’t happening today.
When 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino: Devil’s Advocate, The Godfather) mysteriously receives a box of documents from the infamous tobacco pushers Phillip Morris, he turns to Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe: Mystery, Alaska, L.A. Confidential) for assistance in deciphering them. A high-ranking executive and the top scientist at rival cigarette-maker Brown & Williamson, Wigand, well, wigs. He’s just been fired “for no good reason” and a confidentiality agreement is in place with B&W. Wigand will act as a consultant regarding the specifics of Bergman’s tobacco documents, but no more will he say.

Bergman, smelling a big story that Wigand is right in the middle of, pushes Wigand to go public with what he knows. But Wigand is a man torn: between his desire to honor his confidentiality agreement and the necessity of following his conscience, between his desire to protect his family — B&W is making veiled threats — and his need to unburden himself of his terrible secret.

Bergman’s other battle, then, once Wigand agrees to talk on camera, is with CBS corporate lawyers: the network could be at serious risk of a lawsuit — and a losing one, at that — from B&W if they are seen as being complicit in pressuring Wigand to break confidentiality. Though Bergman fights to get Wigand’s damning indictment of Brown & Williamson — and the entire tobacco industry by extension — shown on 60 Minutes, he’s initially unsuccessful.

The Insider‘s one major fault may lie in the fact that it tries to focus on how both of these men are dealing with their incredibly frustrating dilemmas, though I’d be hard pressed to say which man’s story would have been the more interesting one to highlight. In fact, the scenes in which Wigand and Bergman go up against each other are the core of the film, and where it really comes alive. That they are in conflict is ironic, because both are ultimately after the same thing: telling the truth. Wigand, though, has more at stake — he has been threatened with physical harm, with financial ruin, with character assassination, with jail — while Bergman’s risk, of losing his journalistic integrity, is more intangible.

But Crowe and Pacino are electric together, and Crowe more than holds his own against Pacino’s legendary intensity. Their acting styles are complementary. Pacino, almost showily physical, performs the film’s entire opening sequence blindfolded, his entire face covered for his own protection as he negotiates for an interview with a Hezbollah leader, and he’s still riveting. Crowe’s acting, on the other hand, is all in his face in his best moments: as when he tries to hide his disappointment when he believes he won’t get the teaching job he desperately needs, or as he soothes his wife (Diane Venora: The 13th Warrior, True Crime) as they pack to move out of the house their children have grown up in.

A little pedantic in some spots and a little too expository in others, The Insider still intrigues with its often dreamlike — or nightmarish — brand of POV filmmaking. Mann’s camera looks over shoulders and focuses tight on faces and hands, keeping us close to Wigand and Bergman while their worlds collapse around them. Its sense of slowly building menace doesn’t make us afraid for ourselves — we already know we can’t trust the news, can’t trust big business to tell us anything that will hurt their bottom line. But The Insider does make us fear for Bergman and especially Wigand. Even if corporate America isn’t something to believe in, it still seems possible to trust individual people. Will these men still be true to themselves in such a cold world? That’s the question to which we still desperately need to hear the right answer.

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