Editor’s Note: We are currently running the ‘My Favourite Film’ feature, which is your chance to get to know our new writers. Take a look at Andrew’s choice!
‘You go public and thirty million people hear what you got to say, nothing, I mean nothing, will ever be the same again.’
One might think Michael Mann had set the bar for intensity about as high as it can go in his muscular crime epic Heat (1995), yet somehow he raised it even higher in his subsequent film, The Insider (1999). In the writer-producer-director’s skilful hands, a potentially dreary real-life story of a corporate malfeasance case becomes an engrossing 160-minute drama of such searing intensity, it might well blow out your home cinema system.
One of the most crucial choices Mann and his co-writer Eric Roth made was to avoid constructing a biopic about the two protagonists, worldly television producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and former tobacco company executive Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), nor take a detached view of the events that fundamentally challenge the world view of both men. Instead, he brings the viewer inside the human drama of Bergman and Wigand’s battle against almost overwhelmingly powerful forces of opposition, and sometimes each other, to bring the truth to light.
The trouble really begins when Bergman, researching a segment for US network CBS’s news magazine show 60 Minutes, discovers Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe) was fired from his job as Head of Research for the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company. Wigand claims this is due to his refusal to acquiesce to the continued use of known addictive carcinogens in the company’s products – despite his former boss, Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon), and six other Big Tobacco CEOs denying under oath to the US Congress they were aware their products were addictive.
Like a bloodhound on the trail of a scent, Bergman instinctively and relentlessly pursues the story, despite the potentially ruinous legal consequences – a course of action he believes is justified by the journalistic imperative, i.e. that the importance of the story outweighs all other considerations. And the stakes are extremely high: if Wigand talks, he faces a lawsuit that will destroy his family and his reputation; if CBS airs the Wigand interview, subsequent litigation could enable Brown & Williamson to swallow the corporation whole.
At its core, The Insider has three powerhouse performances. Crowe turns out a career-best performance as Wigand, a man who, in the director’s words, is “dying from the inside out,” meanwhile Pacino is in largely new territory here, playing a deep-thinking intellectual. Rounding out the main cast is Christopher Plummer as veteran 60 Minutes host Mike Wallace, whose volatile interviewing style sometimes makes his subjects look like they’ve unwittingly stumbled into a snare.
Each of the three actors plays their character with a complexity of depth and dimension. Crowe fully inhabits his character, whether playing the doting father to two young daughters, or the wronged man; in a confrontational scene with Sandefur, the pressure build-up from suppressing his smouldering rage is so great it seems as if steam is coming out of his ears. Pacino, unsurprisingly, revels in the explosive episodes between Bergman and his boss (Philip Baker Hall), but he’s just as compelling when relating the problems to his wife (Lindsay Crouse), who adroitly appraises the situation and comforts or criticises accordingly. Plummer, equally, is as riveting as the charming television host as he is the imperious media personage – after a panicked CBS News Senior Management airs a preview of the Wigand episode that’s even more censored than Wallace expected, he lambasts the CBS President of News (Stephen Tobolowsky) in no uncertain terms: ‘Who told you your incompetent little fingers had the requisite skills to edit me?!’
The density of Mann’s films is usually too much to fully appreciate on a first screening, and just as with any of his preceding (1986’s Manhunter) or proceeding (2004’s Collateral) works, The Insider’s treasures can only be fully appreciated on subsequent viewings. First time around, Wigand’s establishing sequence may seem a rather arid, stolid setup of the impending discord in his private and professional life. A repeat viewing, however, allows us to revel in a glorious piece of cinema: the contrast of a silent Wigand in his office against a relief of celebrating co-workers in an adjoining laboratory, the subtle but unmistakably brooding soundtrack as Wigand drives his car home, and the subtle clues in the seemingly everyday dialogue between Wigand and his wife (Diane Venora) over dinner. It may seem like an indulgence to have such a slow-burn (no pun intended) introduction, but it’s an illustration of how cinema, unlike television, can capitalise on the freedom it has to begin a story with a steadier flow and thus deliver a richer revelation.
The film has some minor but noticeable imperfections, for example, the sequence where Bergman sniffs out a tip on the location of Unabomber. Coming as it does at such a crucial point in the narrative, it is an indulgence that would be better removed altogether. Nevertheless, The Insider stands up as one of the greatest films of the last 20 years, and one of the great paranoid thrillers of all time, equalling if not surpassing Alan J. Pakula’s legendary Watergate conspiracy thriller All the President’s Men, a spiritual predecessor, of sorts, for Mann’s film. It’s a compelling inside view of events that led up to seemingly untouchable corporate behemoths finally facing a justice of sorts – in 1998, the Big Tobacco companies were ordered to fork out over $200 billion to pay for smokers’ healthcare costs. But there’s a simpler reason why it’s my favourite dramatic film: it’s an enthralling experience to watch a film from a masterful filmmaker operating at the peak of his powers.