Reduced to a smartass summary, The Insider is just a bunch of white guys talking for two hours and thirty-seven minutes about how truth gets compromised in America. Snooze, sorry, call PBS, I’m outta here. But such a gloss doesn’t allow for the kick of Michael Mann, a director who could make visceral cinema out of a nun’s e-mail. True, Mann’s work on TV (Miami Vice, Crime Story) and film (Thief, Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat) usually involves violence — be it bullets or beatings. Characters shed no blood in The Insider, merely principles — those pesky intangibles that on rare and special occasions trip up the march of corporate greed. Think that’s boring? Watch Mann take a crack at it — The Insider will pin you to your seat.
What we have here is a volatile true story, with big-name actors playing high-profile people. There’s Al Pacino, all quick wit and can-do zeal as Lowell Bergman, a producer on CBS+ top-rated 60 Minutes. Bergman, a former Sixties radical, works mostly with star correspondent Mike Wallace, who is played pricelessly by Christopher Plummer in a stunningly accomplished portrayal that takes measure of the talent and ego driving this veteran newsman. (Wallace, now eighty-one, has protested his treatment in the script.)
Mann and co-screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) begin The Insider with a sharply funny, seemingly irrelevant scene set in Iran. A blindfolded Bergman takes a meeting with a sheik to cajole an exclusive interview. Wallace, who arrives after the details are ironed out, objects when the sheik’s staff demands that the American sit far away from their leader. Wallace fumes: “I’m not an assassin.” Bergman whispers to Wallace (“Are you through fucking around?”) and effects a compromise; the interview commences. The first question is prime ballsy Wallace: “Do you know everyone in America thinks you’re a terrorist?”
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The sheik has been set up for the journalistic kill. Why not? It’s good, even great television. The scene sticks in the memory when Mann moves The Insider to the main event. In 1995, Bergman tells Wallace and 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) that he’s onto a bombshell. He thinks that Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a research scientist recently fired by Brown & Williamson — the nation’s third-largest cigarette company — is ready to blow the whistle on his former bosses. If Wigand puts his name on the line to expose his company’s concealment of health risks, the repercussions will be huge. What a story! Never mind that Wigand will be personally screwed. To testify, he would violate a confidentiality agreement he signed with the firm that paid him $300,000 a year — his new job as a teacher pays him a tenth of that. Wigand’s wife (Diane Venora) is furious that he would put the financial welfare of their two daughters at risk.
Yet Wigand persists. How come? Heroism doesn’t explain it; Wigand stayed quiet for years about Big Tobacco. It isn’t until his former boss (Michael Gambon, purring with toxic charm) uses veiled threats to push for a tougher confidentiality pact that anger rises in this self-confessed “plodder.” The New Zealand-born Crowe, so strong in L.A. Confidential and the Aussie-made Romper Stomper, cuts to the heart of an isolated man who seems to close off his emotions for fear of what might happen if they should spill out. Crowe plays Wigand like a gathering storm. This is acting of the highest level, and fully deserving of award attention.
With Bergman’s tacit guarantee to Wigand that CBS is watching his back, the crusader embarks on legal maneuvers that will accuse tobacco companies of maintaining nicotine at addictive levels and subsequently cost them $246 billion in settlements. Wigand didn’t count on pressures that would break up his marriage and lead to smear campaigns and death threats. For sure he didn’t count on 60 Minutes’ refusing to air his interview out of fear that retaliation from Big Tobacco could kill the sale of CBS to Westinghouse. A suicidal Wigand rages at Bergman, who in turn rails against Wallace for going along with Hewitt’s cringing toady offer to air a sanitized version of the interview. Says Wallace: “I’m seventy-eight years old, and I do not intend to spend the rest of my career wandering through the wilderness of National Public Radio.” Ouch!
Other films, notably All the President’s Men, Network and Quiz Show, have explored the politics of compromise. But Mann turns a moral issue into riveting suspense. “What got broken here doesn’t go back together again,” says Bergman, who quits 60 Minutes even after CBS agrees to air the Wigand interview at a later date. Accuse Mann of overlength, bombast, dramatic license; his film is still mandatory viewing. With its dynamite performances, strafing wit and dramatic provocation, The Insider offers Mann at his best — blood up, unsanitized and unbowed.