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Here's a movie, one of the best of its year, that one might assume would already be out on Blu-ray. After his superior action-drama hit Heat, writer-director-producer Michael Mann came back with 1999's The Insider, a movie about serious issues that scores high marks in every regard -- quality, entertainment value, awards and just plain good filmmaking. Up until this picture Mann was known mostly as a writer and director of stylish & trendy action fare -- his TV show Crime Story helped shape a format for cops 'n' robbers fare that's still in vogue. Based on true events so legally contentious that we can hardly believe anyone would approach them, The Insider tells the story of how powerful corporate interests almost succeeded in suppressing the production of a 60 Minutes news show, mounting an onslaught of legal maneuvers, reputation-smearing and witness intimidation. Not since Kazan and Schulberg's On the Waterfront has the idea of 'snitching' been the focus of such a serious movie. Now it's called whistleblowing, and it can be just as perilous as testifying against the mob. The most that crooks can do is kill you, but a concerted effort by a consortium with deep pockets can ruin your life, break your spirit and turn you into a bitter paranoid.
Marie Brenner's Vanity Fair article served as the basis for the script by Mann and his co-screenwriter Eric Roth (co-screenplay, Munich). Investigating a story about fire safety, noted 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) meets Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a bio-scientist and executive for a Big Tobacco company. Wigand has just been fired for verbally protesting the company's policies and practices. The tobacco company's CEO Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon) not only insists on using a chemical with a health risk in his cigarettes, but he also demands that Wigand sign an extraordinarily restrictive non-disclosure agreement about anything to do with the company. When Jeffrey questions Sandefur's ominous attitude, the company threatens to cut off the post-employment health benefits that Wigand needs to care for his acutely asthmatic daughter.
Thus Bergman is able to get Jeffrey Wigand to interview for a TV news story about his former employer. The entire tobacco industry as a group lied before congress when they claimed that their tobacco is not habit forming. Jeffrey Wigand asserts that the CEOs know very well that the tobacco is habit forming, and that chemicals are added to make it so. Cigarettes, says Wigand, are a "nicotine delivery system" designed to turn smokers into addicts.
Lowell Bergman helps Wigand do the right thing, only for their efforts to run into a barrage of legal obstruction and even death threats. When Wigand cooperates with a Louisiana District Attorney in a suit against Big Tobacco, the industry is able to throw an injunction at him; their reach even extends to the Governor's office. But the problem doesn't stop there. After the tension and disruption break up Wigand's marriage, CBS's corporate office gets cold feet. Legal counsel Helen Caperelli (Gina Gershon) and VP Eric Kluster (Stephen Tobolowski) convince 60 Minutes' executive producer Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) and anchor Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) to omit Wigand's entire interview. Bergman knows that CBS is up for sale, and the front office doesn't want anything to happen to the deal. Bergman must tell Jeffrey Wigand that all his sacrifices in the name of "doing the right thing" -- his career, his lifestyle, his family - may very well come to naught.
The Insider is an intimate movie about a subject that affects us all. Not since All the President's Men has a chapter in Great Moral Lessons of Late 20th Century America been so effective. The demonization of Big Tobacco is complete, and hasn't been topped since. The British Petroleum Oil Spill debacle comes close, and BP is still soaking the airwaves with institutional propaganda telling us how benevolent and benign is their venal disregard of anything but profit. These stories aren't Liberal Whining but real-life re-runs of Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People.
A counter-argument says that a lot of incidentals have been changed in The Insider, including the order of events and specifics of relationships between people. Lowell Bergman comes off as a Knight in Ethical Armor, while his colleagues at the TV show behave more like rationalizing careerists. This movie is of course similar to President's Men in that the hero producer and whistleblower are played by attractive stars. Would any of us like to see ourselves portrayed as flawed, selfish 'supporting players' in someone else's star vehicle?
Well, the larger story of The Insider is undeniably true. The villains are probably worse than portrayed and the heroes perhaps less noble. A victory of sorts was achieved -- Big Tobacco is now acknowledged as an irresponsible, evil corporate cabal. And none of the movie's dramatic embellishments compromise the reality being presented.
Until this film I associated Michael Mann with exciting and sometimes fascinating crime stories, such as the abovementioned Heat. And that's even with Heat's pretentious ending that wants us to think that cops and robbers are somehow professional blood brothers on opposite sides of the law. Mann brings his visual smarts and skill with actors to The Insider. Everybody's good and all the key players are even better. Al Pacino has such a rewarding role that he never sees the need to clinch the deal with explosive tirades and bombast. Fresh from L.A. Confidential, Russell Crowe is compelling as the nervous, overly sensitive Jeffrey Wigand. He goes through one trauma after another with surprising dignity, underplaying everything, even his drunk scenes. Crowe's seems more vulnerable; his face has a different kind of firmness than his thug cop in Confidential. I give Mann at least a little credit for this great characterization -- Crowe comes off far better here than as the cartoonish 'absent minded professor' of Ron Howard's far less accomplished A Beautiful Mind.
Christopher Plummer's impersonation of Mike Wallace is really something to watch. He nails the familiar Wallace without having to look a bit like him. Diane Venora and Sharon Tiller pull tough duty as wives of men under ridiculous pressure. Philip Baker Hall, Stephen Tobolowski, Colm Feore, Michael Gambon and Rip Torn play friends and foes with impressive precision. I was even impressed with Gina Gershon as a slick CBS attorney. I hate to slight the hard-working actress, but after Showgirls I didn't think I'd ever accept anything Gershon did again.
With Dante Spinotti and designer Brian Morris, Mann somehow keeps us comfortable and un-confused through 101 location changes, without unwelcome expository blather. The only time I got lost (probably my problem) was when Lowell Bergman stopped into a mountain cafe to talk to two "geologists" that have something to do with the Unabomber. Mann also pulls off a beautifully subdued special effect when the drunken Wigand, separated from his family, hallucinates in his hotel room. The scenic wallpaper suddenly morphs into a memory view of his old back yard and the little girls he has lost. It's very affecting.
Something most everyone has remarked about The Insider that I feel compelled to repeat: I didn't notice anybody smoking in the movie. The real Jeffrey Wigand is said to have insisted on that. And one more thought: perhaps the cynical, despairing total opposite of The Insider is the Steven Soderbergh movie, The Informant!
The movie's most pungent line comes when Don Hewitt tries to dismiss the whole affair as something that will evaporate from the public's mind in a Warholian 15 minutes. Christopher Plummer's Mike Wallace is quick to correct him: "No, that's fame. Fame has a fifteen minute half-life, infamy lasts a little longer." The Insider may spin the Bergman-Wigand view of events, but it hits far closer to the mark than most docu-dramas I've seen. How many recreations of important, historical events are complete distortions?
Touchstone Home Entertainment's Blu-ray of The Insider looks just fine, like a new release. The lengthy movie unspools without a hitch in either picture or sound -- the only irritation you'll encounter is when you have to put it on pause for an interruption. This is like a pocketbook you can't put down, only better.
Touchstone includes a promo featurette, a commentary track with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe and an analysis of a scene. The show was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Crowe), Director, Writing, Cinematography, Editing and Sound, but it won nothing. The winners in those categories that year were American Beauty, Kevin Spacey (American Beauty), Sam Mendes (American Beauty), John Irving (The Cider House Rules), Conrad Hall (American Beauty), and The Matrix. None of those pictures affected me as did The Insider.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Insider Blu-ray rates:
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