Proving once again that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, more than a few people are feeling the burn from Michael Mann’s new ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama, The Insider. Based on "The Man Who Knew Too Much," a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, Mann’s film details the efforts of 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) to air an interview with whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) over the objections of CBS corporate officers and the Brown & Williamson tobacco company.
Both CBS (in the form of 60 Minute Men Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt) and Brown & Williamson have complained that the film distorts events and besmirches characters – an ironic turn of events considering the smear campaign the tobacco company has been conducting against Wigand and the hot seat grillings that have made 60 Minutes the standard bearer in television news magazines. Mann, best known for sleek, diamond-edged crime thrillers like Manhunter and Heat, acknowledges that "although the film The Insider is based on a true story, certain events depicted in the film have been fictionalized for dramatic effect". Despite the disclaimer, The Insider is a generally faithful adaptation of the Vanity Fair article and an absorbing – if somewhat less than incendiary – behind the scenes peek at the complications that arise when corporate interests clash with journalistic obligations.
As head of research and development for B & W, Wigand thought – or at least, convinced himself he thought – that he was working for the public good, to help develop a less harmful cigarette utilizing a nicotine substitute. He soon learned, however, that science was a low priority for the corporation compared to hooking greater numbers of lifelong smokers by spiking the nicotine content of their smokes with chemical additives, causing the addictive substance to be more rapidly absorbed into the lungs and body tissue. Management soon grew weary of Wigand’s reluctance to play ball, and laid him off with an attractive severance package, provided he signed a confidentiality agreement.
While working on a story about fire safety and cigarettes, Lowell Bergman received a box of internal tobacco company documents from an anonymous source. A contact at the FDA put Bergman in touch with Wigand, for assistance in interpreting the documents. From that initial meeting, a bond of trust slowly formed between journalist and informant, leading to the moment when Wigand agreed to an interview with Mike Wallace to tell the world that the tobacco companies, despite their denials before Congress, knew full well that cigarettes were addictive and harmful.
From there, both Wigand and Bergman were hung out to dry. CBS lawyers, fearing possible legal action, objected to airing the interview. Wallace and Hewitt initially acquiesced, and the 60 Minutes piece ran without Wigand’s participation. This incensed not only Bergman, who had worked for months to secure Wigand’s trust, but also the insider himself, who had become the object of a smear campaign and possible death threats, and whose family had abandoned him under the strain. Eventually, Wallace turned around and applied pressure to get the interview on the air.
The Insider‘s most effective moments revolve around the relationship between Bergman and Wigand. In contrast to his blustery Heat histrionics, Pacino explores much more subtle territory here. It’s a pleasure to watch as he deftly negotiates Wigand’s mercurial changes of mood, drawing the whistle-blower into his confidence. The movie takes its time with these scenes, and necessarily so. Good as he is, though, there’s never a moment when we forget we’re watching "Al Pacino"; he’s reached that perhaps inevitable iconic status.
Russell Crowe, on the other hand, is a true revelation as Jeffrey Wigand, delivering a colossal performance that will almost certainly rank as the year’s best. Crowe would seem an odd choice for the doughy, middle-aged Wigand, but he’s utterly convincing, disappearing completely into the role of a man with "no social skills", who tries in vain to keep himself emotionally under wraps, even among his family. Though Wigand’s character flaws are never glossed over, Crowe makes it impossible not to feel sympathetic towards the whistle-blower. In one of the film’s best scenes, Wigand takes a job as a high school chemistry teacher at 10% of his former Brown & Williamson pay. The tentative way in which Wigand gains the trust of his inaugural class, confessing nervously, "I find chemistry to be magical," may be the most heartfelt screen moment of the year outside of The Straight Story.
But Mann is apparently unaware of his movie’s greatest strength. Crowe all but disappears during the last thirty minutes, and that’s when the air slowly starts to leak out of what had been an engrossing real-life thriller. The meandering conclusion reeks of last-minute editing; Rip Torn’s fleeting appearance as smear-meister Terry Lenzer will be virtually incomprehensible to those who are unfamiliar with the case.
This is not a new problem with Mann’s films. Heat in particular suffered from the director’s apparent need to stretch rather thin material to epic proportions. Though spectacular at times – the extended shoot-out in the streets of Los Angeles may well be the most exhilarating such sequence ever filmed – that movie collapsed under the weight of its myriad subplots into a shapeless mess. This one holds together longer, but eventually suffers the same fate. By the time The Insider burns down to the filter, the initial high has long been forgotten and only smoke rings remain.