June 6, 2008

The Insider (1999)
Grade: 81/100

Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer

What it's about. Based on a true story, circa 1993 to 1995. Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) is a point man for the television newsmagazine "60 Minutes." His job is convince people to give televised interviews for the show. He accomplishes this by telling his sources that they can trust him. He will keep any promises that he makes to them, and will try to resolve problems that arise because of their testimony.

Bergman's skills are needed like never before for Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe). Wigand was an executive scientist for a cigarette maker, fired for making too much internal noise over the nasty chemical additives in cigarettes. The disgruntled Wigand wants to air the firm's dirty laundry on "60 Minutes," and veteran anchor Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) is eager for the assignment.

But Wigand faces numerous hurdles before he can condemn his former employer on nationwide television. First and foremost, his wife Liane (Diane Venora) is accustomed to the good life: a big house, cash flow, health insurance, and tranquility. She knows that it can all end if Wigand agrees to testify, and the cigarette maker balks on the severance payments. Worse, the company begins a harassment campaign against the Wigands, including a smear campaign, litigation, and untraceable death threats. The state justice department is much more interested in protecting Big Tobacco than the Wigands.

Jeffrey Wigand is determined, and finally tapes the interview. But the CBS legal department nixes the interview, afraid of a multi-billion dollar lawsuit from the tobacco firm. All of Wigand's sacrifices (career, home, family) are for nothing if the interview won't make it on the air. But Bergman is so principled that he values his client over his own career, and continues to rattle the cages of CBS to get them to do the right thing.

How others will see it. Director Michael Mann was (at the time) best known for the successful 1980s television show, "Miami Vice." The Insider is considerably more cerebral, but there is plenty of tension in the story for Mann to exploit. It's good versus evil, the most familiar of all movie themes. Most viewers will instinctively support both Wigand and Bergman, and will stick through the film despite its lengthy running time.

The Insider gives meaty roles to Pacino, Crowe, and Plummer. Of the three, Crowe has the most challenging assignment. His character is stolid, yet passionate. Difficult, yet sympathetic. We do feel sorry for Wigand, but he did bring some of it on himself. You can't sell your soul to the devil, that is, take a high income job at a tobacco company, then try to repent after you've reaped the benefits.

How I felt about it. The Insider is similar to Silkwood or Matewan in that the corporation is completely ruthless when it comes to suppressing its employees' freedom of speech. Karen Silkwood is run off the road, various coal miners are murdered, and Wigand receives death threats.

If Wigand has it better, relatively speaking, than Karen Silkwood, it is because he is highly educated. This increases his value to outsiders, which in turn makes him better protected. Wigand is put up in hotel rooms, shipped to a friendly out of state courtroom to testify, and has legal and home security bills paid. Yet he remains a martyr, because he gave up the good life to ease his conscious. Or to exact revenge.

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