The Insider
Rating -

Drama (US); 1999; Rated R; 157 Minutes

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

Produced by Pieter Jan Brugge, Gusmano Cesaretti, Michael Mann, Kathleen M. Shea and Michael Waxman; Directed by Michael Mann; Screenwritten by Eric Roth and Michael Mann; based on an article "The Man Who Knew Too Much" by Marie Brenner

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Think of the challenges that have seemingly deluged the life of "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman. This career with CBS's most-recognized broadcast journalism program was filled with incredible tribulations, and all of them, in ways, could not have prepared him for a case that rolled around in the early 90s, which involved blowing the whistle on the tobacco industry. Some people call it the most important deed of his successful run with CBS--one which actually required him to fight for journalistic integrity, rather than assuring his sources that they would be protected no matter what the circumstances.

In the movie "The Insider," Al Pacino plays Bergman with a resounding presence, stressing the details that made his character so determined, yet so hostile, when things didn't run smoothly. By the time the case had been resolved, and his efforts paid off, he saw no more reason to continue the career, and thus resigned from his position, forever leaving a mark in the evolution of television reporting. But Mike Wallace, played here by Christopher Plummer, offers a painful but often true piece of wisdom in the movie--people aren't ordinarily remembered for the best thing they did during their career, but for the last thing. At least with Bergman, both are the same.

The nexus between broadcast journalism and the tobacco industry dates back farther than we care to realize, and in this brilliant drama from Michael Mann, we are taken behind the camera for stirring glimpses into the slow (but eventual) fall of the tobacco company Brown & Williamson. The journey has a lasting impact on the viewers, because cigarettes have helped induce the progression of cancer, nervous system failures, and various other causes of death. Of course, the industry in general has long before denied that cigarette smoking is addictive--from 1993 to 1995, the years these events actually unfolded, those claims blew up in their face with evidence brought forth by one Jeffrey Wigand.

Here, he is played by Russell Crowe, in one of the year's strongest male performances. Fired from his job as a nicotine scientist for, as the company puts it, "lack of communication," he is contacted by Lowell Bergman, after the producer is unknowingly delivered documents involving a study done about the fire hazards of cigarette smoking. Wigand ignores the pleas for fear of his wife and two daughters' lives, not to mention a confidentiality clause he signed with the company. Nonetheless, constant threats force him to turn over to Bergman, who at first thinks Wigand is there to help with translating the documents, and then begins to suspect that this person might have a valuable secret--one that could crush the industry under their own cover-ups. The rest is history, to some extent.

"The Insider" is frank about things--it owns up to not telling us the facts in the way they naturally occurred. Some elements of the story have been shifted to, as the movie's closing credits explain, help the dramatic tension. Most movies would ignore the perception that they are actually fooling with facts, but this is one that doesn't mislead. Therefore, we accept the invalid narrative twists, and learn to grow on them as if they were really part of this ever-growing story. Some scripts could have taken a story like this to ridiculous heights. This isn't one of those efforts.

Some of the most compelling prospects the movie reaches for take place in a dividing point between acts. The first act revolves around Wigand, his journey to the public, and the ambushes that block his retaliation--it is later followed by an inspection on Bergman himself, who fights to have this man's story aired on CBS, no matter who or what crosses his path. The dividing point between both acts is argumentative, but my belief is that it comes during the taping of the Wigand interview with Mike Wallace, which gives us an explanation on how the industry is manipulating the nicotine so that buyers can "get their fix." Sure, this is not the most dramatically compelling scene in the film ,but it is stunning how the shot pitches light over Wigand's face, and shadows over those standing behind the cameras. This accents the central point's immediate theme, which is that the public remains in the dark while someone is trying to shed the light upon them.

This may very well be one of the year's best Oscar contenders. Filled with a cast of unfeasible talent and grandeur, "The Insider" pulls out stops that no other film has done in the past year--multiple performances worthy of Academy Award consideration. Russell Crowe shines as a man with no alternative choices, and conveys a series of emotions that we would expect to emerge from a man with a life as complicated as his. Al Pacino, one of cinema's finest working actors today, is marvelous in nearly ever scene, but is best at pushing for CBS's reconsideration in airing the project he has put so much hard work into (he also find it odd that, unless he mentions his relationship with the CBS show, no one will return his calls). Mike Wallace is the most known of the "60 Minutes" gang, and Christopher Plummer does not let us down (then again, when has he ever?). Some of the more earlier scenes show his strength and agility on the set of a taped interview, in which he attempts to question the authority of an Arab terrorist, but is often disoriented by a bodyguard's demands that the anchor cannot sit too close to the guest.

During the final sequence, and thereafter, we are renewed, refreshed from all those thoughts that the tobacco company is shamelessly campaigning a product meant to be addictive, and to kill. Countless victims die to this addictive drug a year (even the media is taking a stab at the industry, with commercials that show some of the more crippled victims of smoking). Indeed, the prospect of addiction is a big issue here, but the movie gains my interest with its journalistic preference; being somewhat of a reporter myself, I'm grateful to see a movie portray the public's right to know so determinedly. The year has already seen some of the finest movies in the past few years, and "The Insider" may be one of the final masterpieces of the 20th century.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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