The Soul of The Insider

The Insider

The youthful, idealistic energy of Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men has been replaced by the grim realities of corporate journalism in writer/director Michael Mann’s The Insider. While the inexperienced Washington Post reporters put their own lives in danger pursuing a scandal that reached to the highest levels of political power, 60 Minutes disembowels a story that could bring the tobacco industry to its knees.

The surprise is that Mann’s movie ends up being more of a human story — a touching, potent portrait of a man who did the right thing for the wrong reasons with a phenomenal performance at its center.

Russell Crowe, after his triumphant Bud White in L.A. Confidential but before the superstardom of Gladiator, plays Jeffrey Wigand, who has been fired as chief of research for tobacco giant Brown & Williamson. Stunned, bitter, and lost, he gets a call from 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) asking him to translate some fire-safety documents from a rival tobacco company. The two meet, and the next day — not coincidentally — Wigand is called in by Brown & Williamson, looking to broaden his confidentiality contract.

Now Wigand — who was fired for “poor communication skills” (read: won’t keep his mouth shut) — is pissed, and he says to Bergman he wants to go on 60 Minutes to tell the world that the tobacco industry has manipulated its products to addict smokers. It’s a decision made out of anger rather than conscience.

Wigand pays. He gets death threats and finds himself under menacing surveillance. Brown & Williamson begins an extensive smear campaign. His status-conscious wife leaves him.

The whistle-blower seems resigned to all that. But when 60 Minutes — under legal threat from Brown & Williamson — hacks the story, he’s crushed: He gave up everything and doesn’t get the satisfaction of payback.

The Insider is only partly Wigand’s story, though; like Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, this movie is first and foremost about journalists and their process, and it has many of the same narrative problems: too many characters, too little characterization, and no real climax. When the movie shifts away from Wigand and to 60 Minutes’ personalities in its second half, it loses some of its dramatic drive.

The movie also suffers from Mann’s none-too-subtle attempts to slaughter the news show’s crusty sacred cows. Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer, capturing the look and making no effort on voice or delivery) comes off only as a massive flip-flop, and Executive Producer Don Hewitt (a wasted Philip Baker Hall) is little more than a CBS whore.

Pacino’s Bergman, too, is one-dimensional, pure martyr for his story and his source. But the actor invests his role with so much passion that he nearly makes his crusader seem real, and the bond between Bergman and Wigand is strong and complex.

At the movie’s center, though, is the complicated loner Wigand, and Mann bases his direction on the character. Employing an itchy, anxious camera to complement his gorgeous framing, Mann often shoots over Crowe’s shoulder, putting the audience in the protagonist’s body — off balance, nervous, scared. The elegance of the director’s Heat is replaced by dread and unease in The Insider.

But it is Crowe who holds the movie together. He takes a character who shows few outward signs of being a decent person and gives him his dignity and humanity. The performance fills the movie and gives it soul.

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