The Insider

Directed by Michael Mann
Starring: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall.
MPAA Rating: R for language.

Review by Matt Heffernan
November 7, 1999

In the 1990's we have seen a marriage between the film and television industries in America. Well, more like an old-fashioned, medieval, drag-the-bride-by-her-hair type of marriage. A long time ago, Columbia Pictures created CBS, but has since sold them off. Then, when Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. bought Fox, they formed the fourth network, named (appropriately enough) Fox. A few years later, Paramount started UPN and Warner Bros. created the WB, both happening almost simultaneously. Then, Disney bought ABC. Now, Paramount's parent company, Viacom, is buying CBS from its current owner, Westinghouse. So, four studios esentially own five of the six U.S. networks (NBC is still owned by General Electric). Despite the current climate, Disney has made the bold move of making The Insider, a film about CBS when it was first being bought by Westinghouse, and the deal could have been jeopardized by its most popular show.

Actually, it's not so much about CBS, but three high-profile men, who are all still alive in real life. Russell Crowe plays Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the head of research and development for Brown & Williamson, the third-largest tobacco company in the U.S. He is fired from his high position for questioning the practically evil actions of the corporation. "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) receives an anonymous box of papers from Philip Morris, the biggest of Big Tobacco. He calls on Wigand for help in deciphering the documents, but he learns that Wigand has a story of his own that he cannot tell without breaking a confidentiality agreement.

Bergman forgets about the PM papers, and sets up an arrangement to get Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) to interview Wigand. The trick is to get Wigand to spill his guts at a deposition, so the they can air the interview. B&W, however, takes a different side of the matter. They go beyond mere litigation, and actually threaten Wigand and his family with violence. Wigand needs to make the choice between keeping his mouth shut, and his family safe, or exposing the tobacco industry and possibly saving the lives of generations of Americans.

This is not an easy choice, and this film does not attempt to make any. Director Michael Mann (Heat) turns this true story into an extraordinary thriller whose suspense is no less diminshed if you know the outcome. Occasionally, as with some of Mann's other films, there are moments of awkwardness, but they can be overlooked. The three leads give astounding performances, and bring to life the names we read about and the faces we see on TV. It nearly achieves greatness, which is more than I certainly expected from this story.

The screenplay by Mann and Eric Roth (based on the article "The Man Who Knew Too Much" by Marie Brenner) is probably the biggest component that makes this film work. Aside from a few moments of over-explanation, the dialogue is taut and insightful. Bergman often makes allusions to going Through the Looking Glass while describing the Carrollian logic of the tobacco industry and its relationship with the American legal system. This assures the audience that they are not the only ones confused with the nature of the story.

This film has been responsible for a lot of controversy. Of course, B&W aren't happy about being made the villian in a movie. What surprised me was Mike Wallace's initial reaction to his protrayal by Plummer. Before he even saw it (and, as of this writing, I still don't know if he has seen it), he was making public statements about how it made him look weak. I think he comes off quite well, and he should be proud of this film. Besides, Plummer even has a much nicer speaking voice.

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The Insider (1999)

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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan