Film Review: The Insider (1999)

(source: tmdb.org)

When the films get relatively obscure with passage of time if may be for variety of reasons. There are, however, very specific reasons when it happens to films starring global film icons, directed by highly respected directors and dealing with important subjects in “Oscar”-winning manner. It usually has something to with such films striking too close to comfort for Hollywood or their subjects being even more depressively relevant than it time of their premiere. The Insider, 1999 drama directed by Michael Mann, provides one such example with its treatment of public health, whistleblowers and corporate media censorship.

The film depicts real events that were originally covered in May 1996 by Vanity Fair article written by Marie Brenner. The protagonist is Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe), highly respected scientist who has been fired from the executive position at Brown & Williamson, powerful and influential tobacco company. Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino), producer for CBS news show 60 Minutes, is researching dark side of tobacco industry and Wigand seems ideal choice for participating in the next episode. Wigand, who is reluctant at first, tells Bergman about his former bosses deliberately misleading the public with claims that nicotine doesn’t have harmful effects on people’s health and even deliberately putting addictive substances in their products. Wigand, unfortunately, can’t repeat those claims on air because he is bound by non-disclosure agreement and its breech would deprive his family of health insurance. Bergman makes a clever plan to work around it – Misssissippi court would call Wigand to testify in state case against tobacco industry and thus void the non disclosure agreement. Wigand is in the meantime forced to sell house and take job of a high school teacher, while at the same time receives constant death threats against him and his family. His wife Liane (played by Diane Venora) can’t stand the pressure and leaves him with the children. The only comfort for Wigand is opportunity for millions of people to hear his story on television. Much to his and Bergman’s surprise, CBS legal department led by Helen Caparelli (played by Gina Gershon) suggests to CBS News president Eric Kluster (played by Stephen Tobolowsky) not to air the interview because this could endanger CBS corporate takeover deal with Westinghouse. Bergman’s boss Don Hewitt (played by Philip Baker Hall) and legendary reporter Mike Wallace (played by Christopher Plummer) agree with such decision and decide to air the interview in censored version.

While making The Insider, Michael Mann was considered one of the best directors in Hollywood. This reputation was built almost exclusively on stylish crime action pieces both on big and small screen, but, on occasion, Mann showed that he could venture into different genres, like with The Last of the Mohicans. He was, however, attracted to this film because its subject matter and its treatment corresponds with his political views which were usually much to the left from the rest of “limousine liberals” in 1990s Hollywood. In this film Mann doesn’t attack few rotten apples in otherwise perfect world of smug and self-righteous Clinton’s America that would usually be depicted in form of already marginalised white heterosexual bigots, couple of corrupt individuals or losing Republican Party. Instead, he takes on the system in its entirety. Nothing has changed from the past decade and corruption and greed reign supreme, even at places you wouldn’t have expected it. That includes media, which was, since the glory days of Watergate, seen as America’s conscience and ultimate arbiter of what is right and good. Here the celebrated media institutions and its stars are shown to be subservient to bottom line, even at the expense of their journalistic duty of telling the truth and saving tens of millions of their fellow citizens from cancer. 1990s Hollywood was, however, closely connected with American corporate media and such treatment of sister institution proved counterproductive for this film’s efforts to win Academy Awards.

The Insider is, nevertheless, a very good film. Script, written by Mann and Eric Roth, has managed to transform magazine article into what, even without political context, looks like exciting thriller. Mann as a director uses plenty of his talents, especially those in creating specific atmosphere. Helped by music score by Pieter Bentke and Lisa Gerard, he creates strong contrast between visually attractive surroundings and dark thoughts that plague character. This is especially so in scenes that show Wigand who lives in luxurious homes and hotel rooms, while being affected by fear, anxiety and depression. Mann also uses handheld camera to show how bourgeoisie idyll is actually very fragile.

Mann in this film also relied on superb cast. Al Pacino, who was at the time prone to hamming it up, was strangely subdued in the role of Bergman. He plays character with contradictions – radical leftist and former student of Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse who is now working to corporation that embodies everything that is wrong with capitalism. It may be argued that this performance is inspired by Mann himself, another leftist forced to be a cog in corporate machine. Veteran Canadian actor Christopher Plummer is also very good in the role of sanctimonious television star Mike Wallace. But the best role belongs to Russell Crowe, who convincingly plays character a generation older than himself and, while doing so, adds moral complexities. Wigand became whistleblower less because of his conscience and more because of hurt vanity. He is also prone to drinking and violent outbursts and few people would like to have him for a neighbour. Crowe nevertheless manages to evoke audience’s sympathies and Wigand is ultimately seen as a martyr who did the right thing. On the other hand, film is at times too focused on his personal story while losing broader economic, political and cultural context. That, and excessive running time, are major flaws of The Insider.

It is, however, a very good film that shows great director, great screenwriters and great cast at the work. The only problem for today’s audience is that they might get depressive conclusions that things didn’t change much and that someone today could easily produce remakes of The Insider dealing with people like Snowden, corporations like Pfizer and institutions like Twitter Trust and Safety Board.

RATING: 7/10 (++)

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