More noise than signal

The Insider

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Michael Mann’s not the type to rush into productions, so there’s a four year gap between 1999’s The Insider and the oft-lauded Heat, discussed in podcasts passim. The Insider carries over Al Pacino in a lead role, playing Lowell Bergman, a producer for respected American investigative journalism TV show 60 Minutes. His interest is piqued when a box of documents is delivered to him, alleging that tobacco companies were secretly coming up with ways of making their deathsticks more addictive, while swearing blind that they knew nothing of any such activities, or that nicotine is addictive, or what a “nicotine” was, or that the grass in green and the Pope defaecates in the woods.

This documentation comes from the recently fired head researcher Jeffrey Wigand, played by Russell Crowe, everyone’s favourite antipodean phone tosser. He refused to go along with a plan to put another dangerous additive into the company’s cigarettes, and was fired under the barely defensible reason of poor communication skills as a result. The film is, then, a two and a half hour chronicle of Wigand struggling to balance his desire to expose these practices and the extraordinary extents that his former company go to to keep him silent. This ranges from mildly threatening meetings reminding him of his confidentiality agreement, to alleged death threats, and finally commissioning a report smearing his name as it comes closer to the piece’s air date.

Meanwhile, Bergman is fighting his own battle to get the piece on the air, with the corporate lawyers expressing grave concerns about the possible liabilities this could open up for them, unwanted at the best of times, but in particular ahead of a takeover bid, and it’s not like Big Tobacco doesn’t have lawyers with hair triggers. Both these struggles result in trials, tribulations and personal costs for both men, although Wigand clearly grasps a significantly more turd-covered stick than Bergman.

There’s perhaps a danger of The Insider being passed over, as evidenced by the disappointing returns at the box office, because what you’d be forgiven for taking as the central conceit of the film – Big Tobacco being Big Arseholes – isn’t really news to anyone. That’s a mistake, as it could be about any subject – as disgusting as this one is. It’s more about the dilemmas involved when doing the right thing is going to come at a terrible cost.

This film lives and dies by the central performances, and that of Crowe in particular, who delivers perhaps his best turn to date, and it’s pretty high up my list of Pacino performances too. Meanwhile, a supporting cast running the gamut from Michael Gambon and Rip Torn to Christopher Plummer means that even some very minor roles get major performances. The narrative is solid enough, but this is a character piece at heart, and Crowe does a terrific job of wringing the emotion from the role.

If this isn’t Michael Mann’s best film, it’s certainly challenging for it – packed with much more tension than you’d expect from the subject matter, with some meaty ethical conundrums to conunder, all doused in Mann’s slickness. Eurgh.

I can’t really come up with much in the way of criticism of it – I perhaps feel it ought to be a half hour shorter, but I can’t point to anything I’d want to cut out of it. Maybe you’re not interested in the story, which may seem a tad dry? Maybe you’ve gone off Crowe thanks to his extra-curricular activities? (Although not to minimise his occasional anger issues, he’s hardly Harvey Weinstein.) But in general, I can’t come up with any reasons not to recommend the film to everyone, in the event you’ve not seen it.