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The Insider
Directed by Michael Mann
Starring: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, and Diane Venora
Running Time: 158 minutes

It's hard to come up with a bad guy these days. Now that communism is (largely) dead, ethnic groups are off-limits, and World War II has become a source of melodramatic comedies, there aren't too many sources of pure evil that we can all agree on. Which is why it's so nice that Hollywood still has the tobacco companies to pick on. Here's a faceless entity that makes a product most people, even those who use it, despise; and they go about their conquests with what seems like conspiratorial glee. And, if the new film The Insider is to be believed, they also employ death squads, stamp out free speech, and smirk way too much. 

The Insider is based on the true story of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe), a former researcher at the tobacco giant Brown & Williamson who did an interview with 60 Minutes about the inner workings of tobacco companies. In retaliation, B&W threatened his family, tried to have him jailed, and generally made his life miserable. But the movie interestingly focuses more on Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), the 60 Minutes producer who first latched on to the story and then guided Wigand through the legal entanglements the tobacco company created. 

The film opens with Bergman deep inside Lebanon as he tries to get an interview with a Hezbollah official. At first, it's not clear what's going on, as director Michael Mann employs a hand-held camera and tight close-ups, a technique he uses throughout the movie. But after a couple minutes, Bergman is able to convince the reluctant sheikh that doing an interview would "put a face on his movement." Soon 60 Minutes journalist Mike Wallace is flying in for one of his trademark confrontations.

Meanwhile, Wigand has been fired from his job for talking out of line. Forced to sign a confidentiality agreement, he has no interest in telling what he knows--at least not until he meets Bergman. The first 45 minutes of The Insider focuses on how Bergman courts Wigand and how Wigand tries to avoid being caught.. And though it's a foregone conclusion that Bergman will get his prize (Wigand is no match for someone who can talk down Hezbollah), the interaction between Wigand and Bergman is so compelling and true-to-life that the audience won't care.

Much of the success of this early sequence and the movie in general is due to the incredibly fine acting of Pacino and Crowe (L.A. Confidential, Mystery, Alaska). Crowe, in particular, is just tremendous as the upstanding scientist who can't decide whether talking to 60 Minutes is worth the pain he's about to put his family through. Crowe's small gestures, clipped sentences, and even the way he walks all reveal a middle-aged man at the crossroads of his life.

Pacino also gives one of his better performances in recent memory. Largely foregoing his usual scenery-chewing, he instead creates a strong, likable character, one who wants his story but also sympathizes with Wigand's plight. And Pacino and Crowe have a real chemistry together. Their arguments have an intensity that matches what's at stake, and their quiet moments reveal a friendship of men struggling with forces much larger than themselves. 

Once Wigand decides to do the interview, all hell breaks loose, with the tobacco company trying everything it can to stop its broadcast. This second act bogs down a little bit in typical Hollywood conspiracy mongering, but it's also compelling cinema. When Wigand has to decide whether to testify in front of a Mississippi court in defiance of a Kentucky gag order, The  Insider perfectly captures the lonliness of that decision. And though the tobacco companies come off looking suitably horrible, Mann doesn't beat the audience over the head. There are subtle shots like a quick drive past a cemetary that get us thinking rather than cringing at the bombast. The movie does have strong language, but that's somewhat to be expected from a movie with this many arguments.

The last half-hour of the film details the decision 60 Minutes initially made not to air the interview and the steps Bergman takes to try to reverse that course and protect Wigand. Though Crowe's character unfortunately fades to the background, Pacino is marvelous as someone who uses the establishment to buck the system. Christopher Plummer (Sound of Music), who plays Mike Wallce, is also outstanding as a man with a decision of his own to make.

Rumor has it that the real-life Wallace is angry with his portrayal in the film, but I can't see why. Yes, it's true he doesn't come off as a lilly-white saint, but Plummer's portrayal powerfully conveys the difficulty in making a choice of this magnitude. Furthermore, if the tobacco company is the evil villain, then journalism comes off as the last bastion of the good guy, with 60 Minutes not necessarily leading the charge but not getting left behind either.

Michael Mann (Heat, Last of the Mohicans) does an excellent job of pacing this 158-minute work. Though the film could've used a trim, it moves along with verve; and most people won't notice its length until they walk out the door. And though the film is too beautifully photographed to ever pass for a documentary, the hand-held camera and numerous close-ups create an intensity to match the story. Finally, Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard's nicely understated score matches the movie's tone. Yes, the tobacco company is evil, but Mann focuses more on the decisions ordinary men make rather than the conspiracy that hinders them.

J. Robert Parks   10/29/99


 

 

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