The strengths of director Michael Mann's "The Insider" don't have much to do with its revelations about the tobacco industry, or the blurring of lines between what's newsworthy and what's good for business. The real pull in this slightly overlong account of a real-life, 60 Minutes scandal is the expert storytelling of a tale of two characters: newsman Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and former tobacco executive Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe).
Bergman's the former producer for CBS' 60 Minutes who convinced Wigand, a tobacco executive fired from his job at Brown & Williamson in 1993, to come forward with his knowledge about the cigarette industry. As a scientist, Wigand had been disturbed by his employer's manipulation of nicotine levels in their product. Being a man who acknowledged that "when I get angry, I have difficulty censoring myself," Wigand was a natural prospect for the determined producer.
The two met when Bergman came looking for someone to help translate some technical documents about the industry. Eventually, Wigand reluctantly agreed to conduct an interview, but not without considerable risks. By testifying in a wrongful death suit against the tobacco industry in Mississippi, Wigand was able to circumvent his confidentiality act with B&W and speak to 60 Minutes, since his testimony had become public record.
Unfortunately, the CBS network, in financial straits at the time and in fear of a colossal lawsuit, decided to shelve Wigand's interview. After having his life threatened and his wife and family leave him, the professor found himself twisting in the wind with nothing to show for it. Bergman, the loyal producer, lost his case to CBS and was alienated from his own 60 Minutes correspondent, Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer).
Four years later, it's hard to remember the particulars of the incident, which occurred, as the film points out, during the same summer as the Unabomer arrest. Although CBS did not initially run the Wigand interview, an article in the New York Times exposed the whole ugly mess, and the former executive's story did come to light. Bergman ended up leaving CBS News, Wigand became a high school chemistry teacher, and an article about the incident in Vanity Fair became the basis for the movie.
The film itself manages to relive the events with considerable urgency and focus. There are no standard shoot-outs or car chases in Mann's movie. But the director understands the inherent tension and drama in the events themselves, and uses them to his advantage. While things may be somewhat fictionalized for the big screen, the way in which one credible action leads to another makes the film consistently involving. The close-up camera work by Dante Spinotti and pulsing score from composer Graeme Revell only add to the dramatization.
The movie's best effects are the actors and their characters, especially Wigand and Bergman, and their relationship to each other and outside forces. The first half of the film is seen mostly from the perspective of the tobacco executive, while the latter parts of the movie deal with Bergman and the fall-out after the interview is killed.
As the wiry, grey-haired, temperamental Wigand, Australian actor Russell Crowe lowers the tempo of his fury from "L.A. Confidential," but still convincingly captures the outraged, reckless sensibility of an average white-collar American. It's not hard to imagine or empathize with his situation as events spiral out of control. Wigand's sense of right and duty is countered by his responsibility for his family's safety.
Pacino, playing a familiar character of dogged determination and integrity, lights up the screen with his take on Lowell Bergman. During the film's last acts, the intensity of his performance only highlights the responsibilities and issues of modern journalism. Although few of the points made are new, Pacino, working against actors Plummer and Phillip Baker Hall (as a CBS executive), underlines the truth behind them with believable energy and humanity.
"The Insider," as much as Mann's accomplished work in "Heat," "Manhunter," and the James Caan crime thriller "Thief," is another well researched, uniquely stylized vision of contemporary drama. Bolstered by a couple of well-grounded performances and a narrative taken from real headlines, it's also a fascinating bit of storytelling that involves matters of true merit.
Al Pacino: Lowell Bergman
Russell Crowe: Jeffrey Wigand
Christopher Plummer: Mike Wallace
Diane Venora: Liane Wigand
Philip Baker Hall: Don Hewitt
Lindsay Crouse: Sharon Tiller
Debi Mazar: Debbie De Luca
Stephen Tobolowsky: Eric Kluster
Colm Feore: Richard Scruggs
Bruce McGill: Ron Motley
Gina Gershon: Helen Caperelli
Michael Gambon: Thomas Sandefur
Rip Torn: John Scanlon
Lynne Thigpen: Mrs. Williams
Hallie Kate Eisenberg: Barbara Wigand
A Buena Vista Presentation. Director Michael Mann. Writers Marie Brenner, Eric Roth and Michael Mann. Producers Pieter Jan Brugge and Michael Mann. Music Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Editors William Goldenberg, David Rosenbloom and Paul Rubell. Art Directors Avishi Avivi, John Kasarda, Margie Stone McShirley and James E. Tocci. Set Decorators Nancy Haigh, Beth Kushnick, Migel Markin, Sharon Shevach and Chris L. Spellman. Costume Designer Anna B. Sheppard. Running time 2 hours, 38 minutes.