Films

The man who knew too much

Brian D. Johnson November 8 1999
Films

The man who knew too much

Brian D. Johnson November 8 1999

The man who knew too much

Films

Brian D. Johnson

The Insider Directed by Michael Mann

Michael Mann made his name with a TV show that was conceived from the phrase “MTV cops.” Putting the drug wars to music, Miami Vice conjured up a cocaine world of designer clothes and hot cars with a candied style that incarnated Eighties excess. Now, Mann dramatizes a different kind of drug war: the fight against big tobacco. The Insider is the inside story of the ruthless campaign to stop CBS’s 60 Minutes from broadcasting an interview with a whistle-blower from a major tobacco company. Based on a 1996 Vanity Fair article, the movie clings scrupulously close to the facts. But the drama is powered by Oscar-worthy performances—as well as the electrifying visuals and lush soundscapes that have served as Mann’s signature in crime dramas ranging from Miami Vice to the movie Heat (1995). The result is extraordinary.

Here is a 2 1/2-hour movie about journalism—about people talking on

the phone—and it is absolutely riveting. The Insider is the best investigative thriller since All the President’s Men dramatized the Watergate scandal 23 years ago.

It is so rare to see a juicy Hollywood movie that exposes corporate America without even changing the names. And while telling its story of conspiracy and coverup, The Insider also unfolds as a complex character study. AÍ Pacino stars as Lowell Bergman, the uncompromising 60 Minutes producer whose determination to air the interview and protect his source brings him into bitter conflict with host Mike Wallace and the CBS brass. Russell Crowe brings a hair-trigger tension to the role of the whistle-blower, Jeffrey Wigand, a deeply troubled man who sees his career, his marriage and his reputation implode under the pressure of a highpowered smear campaign. And Canada’s Christopher Plummer makes a perfect Mike Wallace, who is portrayed as a hardheaded prima donna torn between his belief in journalistic

ethics and his loyalty to the network.

Even the minor players are etched with an eye for detail—a reptilian Michael Gambon as Thomas Sandefur, the executive at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. who fired Wigand; Philip Baker Hall as abrasive 60 Minutes boss Don Hewitt; and Canadian actor Colm Feore adopting a southern drawl to play anti-tobacco lawyer Richard Scruggs. The cast has the kind of depth that Oliver Stone brought to JFK and Nixon, but Mann dramatizes facts with a mix of authenticity and verve that leaves Stone’s melodramas in the dust.

Before settling down to the story, he gets our attention with an episode in which Bergman arranges an interview for Wallace with a terrorist leader in Lebanon. The sequence is just a teaser, but it sets the pace for an adrenalinecharged narrative that never lets up. There is also an early scene of Wigands daughter undergoing a serious asthma attack, a harrowing bit of drama that is one of the few places where the script clearly monkeys with the facts. Wigands daughter actually suffered from spina bifida. But the same point is made— that Wigand, sworn to a confidentiality agreement with his former employer, was terrified that his family would lose its medical benefits. Asthma is perhaps easier to dramatize than spina bifida. And although the girl’s condition is unrelated to smoking, in a movie that never tries to illustrate the effects of tobacco, her attack provides one life-and-death moment where the vulnerability of the lungs is graphically driven home.

Playing a man who exposes himself and his family to a multimillion-dollar smear campaign, Crowe portrays Wigand precisely as he is described in the Vanity Fair piece: “prickly, isolated, and fragile—peculiar as hell’ in Mike Wallace’s phrase.” He is also the most devastating source ever to come forward from the tobacco industry, a veteran health scientist who got trapped in a Faustian deal with a tobacco firm. As chief of research and development for Brown & Williamson in Louisville, Ky., he pulled in nearly half a million dollars

a year. He discovered that the company was using dangerous chemical additives, and that it engineered cigarettes to make them a more addictive “delivery system for nicotine” even as its executives testified that nicotine was not addictive.

After Wigand is fired, and considers going public, death threats fuel his paranoia, and his marriage starts to unravel. Much of the drama revolves around the cloak-and-dagger game that ensues as Bergman tries to earn his trust. Investigative journalists are often dismayed when a source turns out to be less than a model human being, and although Wigands science is sound, his image is tarnished by alcohol abuse and a checkered past—which makes him that much more intriguing as a character.

As the stubborn, crusading journalist—a New Left disciple of Herbert Marcuse who apprenticed at Ramparts magazine before breaking Iraqgate with Mike Wallace—Pacino exhibits his trademark flamboyance. But Mann brings the actor down several notches from the showboating of Scent of a Woman and The Devil’s Advocate. This is Pacinos most solid work in a long time. And the character’s wit keeps him on a human scale—Canadians can delight in a droll exchange in which Bergman meets resistance to a story he is pitching about Oka, Que. “What? Someone took a poll?” he asks. “Are all things Canadian boring?”

Mann takes plenty of lyrical licence. At one point, he shows Bergman making a cellphone call while on vacation, wading into a full-screen turquoise sea. And with a sound track that ranges from a thrumming bass pulse to ethereal opera, he maintains constant suspense: he can make a set of windshield wipers seem sinister. For all its surface style, however, The Insider goes deep, penetrating the corporate mind-set that has sacrificed news to infotainment. And unlike most Hollywood stories of its type, this one does not betray the truth for a happy ending. As Bergman says: “What got broken here doesn’t go back together again.” Ell