Corporate whistle-blowing gets a seat-gripping make-over in Michael Mann's tobacco industry exsposé
Leave it to "Heat" director Michael Mann to make a seat-gripping near-thriller about something as inherently dull as corporate whistle-blowing.
"The Insider" is a freely fictionalized retelling of the events that really got the ball rolling in the current attack on the tobacco industry: When a medical researcher for cigarette maker Brown and Williamson spills his guts to "60 Minutes," it puts CBS into in an ethical tailspin as lawyers come knocking with a broken confidentiality agreement in one hand and a lawsuit in the other.
I know what you're thinking: Yawn!
But Mann's richly atmospheric style (remember the shoot-out finale of "Heat"?) and his every-syllable-counts script -- co-written with Eric Roth ("Forest Gump," "The Horse Whisperer") -- help stuff this nearly three-hour picture with such wall-to-wall tension that journalism feels as stimulating as espionage.
Establishing the volatile mood immediately, Mann opens the movie with an unrelated adrenaline-boost (ala a James Bond flick) that finds "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) in Lebanon negotiating to secure an interview with the leader of an underground Muslim movement. The tension in this sequence is a killer and sets the ambiance for the entire movie.
Upon his return to the States, Bergman gets a lead on a huge story that could blow the doors off of big tobacco: Definitive proof that cigarette manufacturers have been spiking their products with highly-concentrated nicotine to enhance addiction.
On a tip, Bergman contacts freshly-fired Brown and Williamson chemist Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) to interpret the reams of scientific data, but with a little bit of finessing, the embittered Wigand agrees to expose all the smoking industry's dirty little secrets by violating the far-reaching confidentiality agreement he was forced to sign after his termination and under duress.
Pacino is at the top of his game as the cunning and crafty, but principled, segment producer, whose promise of protection and candor is shattered when CBS's lawyers step in, putting the kibosh on this momentous exposé to avoid a potentially huge lawsuit that might imperil the pending sale of the network (Westinghouse bought the broadcaster in 1995).
Pacino's performance is densely layered with audacity, integrity and sympathy for Wigand, whose career and marriage are destroyed by stress and justified paranoia over the relentless smear campaign and intimidation from his former employer.
As Wigand, Russell Crowe ("Mystery, Alaska," "L.A. Confidential") may be bound for an Oscar nomination. He carries such incredible tension in his chronically fatigued features that it's impossible to watch him without tensing up yourself as his life crumbles and he turns to the bottle.
Christopher Plummer is almost as powerful in playing "60 Minutes" anchor Mike Wallace, who covers the Wigand story for the show. Mann charges Plummer with raking Wallace over the coals, portraying him as arrogant, tantrum-prone and capable of kowtowing to corporate interests when it suits him -- although in the long run Wallace comes off as a consummate, even heroic, journalist.
The second half of "The Insider" shows the consequences of these events on Wigand's shattered life and Bergman's conscience, delving deep into the character's psyches and lives as the debate rages about airing the Wigand interview on "60 Minutes." Even the peripheral characters -- wives, production assistants, lawyers -- are refreshingly three-dimensional as they intersect with these two out-on-a-limb men.
Mann makes no bones about crucifying the tobacco industry and questioning corporate, profit-driven journalism in this film. But he isn't just stepping up onto a celluloid soapbox -- this wily, engrossing film is not only the best movie about journalism since "All the President's Men," it's also one of the most visually dynamic movies of the year.
Although he's a strong character director with an ear for ponderous but authentic dialogue, Mann has always been best known for his visual flair and "The Insider" definitely delivers on that front, too. From a quick shot of a single raindrop on a car window to scenes gracefully tinted green, gold or midnight blue to the substantive but subtle Manhattan backdrops, he does an astounding job of illustrating his story with masterful, stylistic touches that give this film a distinctive vitality that is as enticing as its plot.
Many other directors could have made, perhaps, an over-long TV movie out of "The Insider," but it's Mann's arresting techniques that is the icing on the cake which makes this an all-around brilliant film.