Friday November 5, 1999
Unlikely material can inspire exceptional films: witness "The Insider." What could sound less promising than the legal fuss surrounding one man's indecision about telling what he knows about cigarettes, unless it's the internal wranglings of a television network's news division? But it is the triumph of this Michael Mann-directed film that those iffy scenarios result in a compelling drama, as notable for the importance of what it has to say as for the riveting skill with which it's said.
Mann's involvement, as co-screenwriter (with Eric Roth) as well as director, is the tip-off that something is afoot. As his credits ("Heat," "Thief," "The Last of the Mohicans," TV's "Miami Vice") indicate and this film underlines, Mann practically mainlines intensity, and he uses his instinct for dramatic storytelling to fill every bit of this two-hour, 38-minute film with passion and tension.
In fact the argument could be made that Mann's career has been preparation for telling the based-on-fact parallel stories of Jeffrey Wigand, arguably the most significant anti-smoking source to come from the heart of Big Tobacco and one of the keys to a recent $246-billion settlement against the industry, and Lowell Bergman, the "60 Minutes" producer who fought to get his story on the air. Not only is "The Insider" fiercely directed, not only does it have memorable starring performances from Al Pacino and the marvelous Russell Crowe, but it has a tale to tell that is both substantial and significant.
For as much as anything else, "The Insider" is a paradigmatic slice of 20th century America, a look at who we are and at what drives us as individuals and a society. It's a scathing attack on the power of serious money and the chilling effect corporate might can have on the ability to disseminate the truth.
At its core, however, "The Insider" is a story of, as someone says, "ordinary people under extraordinary pressure." It shows how difficult and torturous it can be to do the right thing on an individual level and, most important, what bravery actually means and how little the faces and personalities of heroes fit our often simplistic preconceptions.
To tell this story, screenwriters Roth (an Oscar winner for "Forrest Gump") and Mann, working from Marie Brenner's excellent Vanity Fair piece, have made considerable and unapologetic use of dramatic license. Hardly a documentary (and even they manipulate), "The Insider" uses real names but does not hesitate to embellish or fictionalize situations when it suits its purposes, which include greatly enhancing Bergman's role in events to build him into more of a conventional hero. But peripheral fabrications notwithstanding, the core story the film tells, the issues it raises, remain dead-on accurate.
"The Insider" starts in the most unlikely place, an unidentified Middle Eastern city where a man is being blindfolded for a meeting with a leader of the terrorist Hezbollah organization. The man is Bergman (Pacino), a producer for "60 Minutes," and when the sheik in question asks why he should agree to an interview with "the pro-Zionist American media," Bergman unhesitatingly replies, "Because it's the highest-rated, most respected television newsmagazine in America."
That opening establishes several crucial points, not the least of which is Bergman's loyalty to and belief in "60 Minutes" and its mainstay Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), whose producer and alter ego he's been for 14 years. It also shows Bergman as the pragmatic go-to guy, the producer-as-fixer adept at convincing even the most reluctant subjects to come forward and talk.
An operative both within and against the system--a role that in some ways echoes the actor's earlier work in "Serpico"--Bergman is one of Pacino's best, most alive characterizations. It allows him to be natural and powerful, to hold the screen and convince us of someone's sincerity without resorting to mannerisms or well-worn tricks.
Able to match him stride for stride is the virtuoso Australian actor Crowe. Known to art-house viewers for his award-winning roles in that country's "Proof" and "Romper Stomper," Crowe's ability to project internal complexity electrified a wider audience as the love of Kim Basinger's life in "L.A. Confidential." A powerhouse actor who joins an old-fashioned masculine presence with an unnerving ability to completely disappear inside a role, Crowe not only has made himself look like Wigand, he even duplicates the complex personality journalist Brenner described as "prickly, isolated and fragile. . . . There's a wary quality in his face, a mysterious darkness."
When Wigand is introduced on a sunny afternoon in 1993, he and Bergman are not even aware of each other's existence. It's not a good day for the pin-striped scientist, head of research and development for Brown & Williamson, one of the biggest tobacco companies. He's just been fired, in part, we eventually learn, for objecting to measures the company wants to take to make its products more addictive.
With a comfortable lifestyle, a Southern belle wife (Diane Venora) and two children, one of whom has expensive medical problems, Wigand is not eager to jeopardize his B&W settlement or the health insurance that comes with it. Prodded by company president Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon), he signs a pair of confidentiality agreements, but though he doesn't necessarily look it, Wigand is a person who does not respond well to being pushed around. There is an unexpected fury in him, a rigid core that cannot be quashed or ignored, a core that Bergman will come to both fear and admire.
At work on a different tobacco story, one having to do with fire safety and smoking in bed, Bergman receives an anonymous box of tobacco company documents that he needs "translated into English." A colleague gives him Wigand's name, but when Bergman calls the scientist at home for this simple task, the unexpected resistance Wigand puts up is a goad to the producer's savvy instincts.
Though he has no real idea who Wigand is and not even a clue about what the man knows, Bergman, like a bull facing a cape, can't resist charging. And the more Wigand demurs from talking, the more Bergman increases the pressure, especially after he learns who this difficult, elusive man is and what he knows about the cigarette industry's willingness to lie about its product's effects. "He's the ultimate insider," the producer says. "He's got something to say and I want it on '60 Minutes.' "
The extended cat and mouse interplay between journalist and source is one of "The Insider's" most involving dynamics. An elaborate ritual dance of courtship, a seduction pure and not so simple, it pits Bergman's insistence that he can be trusted ("When I talk to people in confidence, it stays that way") and Wigand's fears about his settlement and whether what he does will make any kind of a difference.
"I'm a commodity to you," he says. "Thirty million people will hear you," Bergman replies, unfazed, "and nothing will ever be the same again."
While this elaborate scenario is being played out, the tenor of Wigand's life changes in ways that ups the ante on his decision. He hears intruders in his backyard, he's followed, he finds threatening messages on his computer, he finds a bullet in his mailbox. He's supposed to be scared, but what he gets instead is angry. (The Times reported last week that Brown & Williamson, which has a history of attacking Wigand, claims the scientist manufactured his death threats. A federal law enforcement official said the evidence either way was not conclusive.)
Alternately closed-off and furious, needy and suspicious, with his marriage now in trouble, the tightly wound Wigand finds himself drawing closer to Bergman as he comes to terms with what seems like a compulsion to come clean. If he decides to talk, finally, it will be because he cannot imagine not doing so.
Compelling as this is, "The Insider" has two more dramas to play out. One is whether or not Wigand will testify in the Mississippi-led multi-state case against the tobacco industry (one of the areas where Bergman's influence has apparently been exaggerated) and the other is the crisis at CBS.
Led by an attorney (an appropriately slick Gina Gershon) worried about something called "tortious interference" and the remote possibility of a massive lawsuit, CBS corporate strong arms its news department in general and "60 Minutes" in particular not to air the Wigand segment. How much and when Wallace resisted this edict has become a major bone of contention between the journalist and the filmmakers, but of one thing there is no doubt: What happened at "60 Minutes" was a major debacle. (The New York Times calls it "one of the low points in the history of CBS News.")
Even if you know every detail of this much-reported situation, it can't overemphasize how effectively Mann and company have ratcheted up the tension to involve us in the immediacy of the Wigand/"60 Minutes" story, to emphasize the chaotic personal dynamics, the battle of wills, that lurked behind all the headlines.
Shot with exceptional crispness by Dante Spinotti (who also did "L.A. Confidential") and energetically edited by William Goldenberg, Paul Rubell and David Rosenbloom, "The Insider" also benefits from Mann's passionate attention to detail. The strong, atmospheric score is by former Dead Can Dance mainstay Lisa Gerrard and her new writing partner Pieter Bourke (with a notable contribution by Gustavo Santaolalla on the Argentine mandolin), and even relatively small roles, like Lindsay Crouse as Bergman's wife and Bruce McGill's firebrand Mississippi attorney, are smartly cast.
"To get the truth out has been such an effort," Wigand said in a recent newspaper interview. "It's still an effort." More than anything else could, "The Insider" not only explains why that effort was worth making but also how hard it was to make.
The Insider, 1999. R, for language. Touchstone Pictures presents a Mann/Roth production, a Forward Pass picture, released by Buena Vista Pictures. Director Michael Mann. Producers Michael Mann, Pieter Jan Brugge. Screenplay Eric Roth & Michael Mann, based on the magazine article by Marie Brenner. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Editors William Goldenberg, Paul Rubell, David Rosenbloom. Costumes Anna Sheppard. Music Lisa Gerrard & Pieter Bourke. Production design Brian Morris. Supervising art director Marjorie McShirley. Key set decorator Nancy Haigh. Running time: 2 hours, 38 minutes. Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman. Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand. Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace. Diane Venora as Liane Wigand. Philip Baker Hall as Don Hewitt. Lindsay Crouse as Sharon Tiller.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun