The Insider, Michael Mann's most underrated masterpiece, turns 20 years old today and its powerful story is more timely now than ever.
For a movie that's largely composed of scenes featuring two people just talking in rooms, The Insider is Michael Mann's most riveting thriller.
“What got broken here doesn’t go back together.”
What Al Pacino's Lowell Bergman says to 60 Minutes' reporter Mike Wallace (an exceptional Christopher Plummer) after helping tell a Whistleblower's story to American audiences is, 20 years after its release, as prophetic as it is unsettling.
With a meticulously-researched script co-written by Forrest Gump scribe Eric Roth, Mann's crisp direction and his and DP Dante Spinotti's boots-on-the-ground visual aesthetic help service The Insider's unrelenting ability to dramatize how the "Truth" can sometimes be like the very cancer the Big Tobacco companies profiled in the film would like you to believe their product isn't responsible for. A cancer that goes viral despite efforts to keep it contained in the darkness of corner offices and corporate boardrooms; that can only be cured when exposed to sunlight. Which, in The Insider's case, comes in the form of 60 Minutes cameras and one producer, Lowell Bergman.
Bergman, as portrayed in the film, has a pathological inability to do anything but hold the line between what is true and the veiled fictions those in power would have stand in for truth. To paraphrase Pacino's standout speech in the film, the more truth Big Tobacco Whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (a scary-good and Very Method Russell Crowe) tells, the more scared 60 Minutes' network, CBS -- and its corporate overlords -- get at exposing that truth. Despite the journalistic and moral integrities compelling them to do so.
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What It's About
Bilge Ebiri's recent article on the film for Vulture, in time for its 20th anniversary, summarizes the story best, while also tapping into why The Insider is Mann's most successful and least assuming drama.
"The story does not, at first glance, seem like the stuff of high cinema. Based on real events that transpired in the mid-1990s, The Insider follows 60 Minutes producer Bergman as he tries to convince ex-tobacco industry scientist Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) to reveal that his former employer, Brown & Williamson, suppressed research about the addictive powers of nicotine. In order to do so, Wigand must break an ironclad nondisclosure agreement he signed with the company. After some machination, much of it involving an anti-tobacco lawsuit being brought about by the attorney general of Mississippi, Bergman finally gets the whistle-blower to sit for a 60 Minutes interview with legendary newsman Mike Wallace (Plummer) — but then has to fight his CBS colleagues, including both Wallace and 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall), when the company, fearing a lawsuit that could derail their impending sale to Westinghouse Corporation, declines to air the segment and instead runs a toothless, abridged version of the story. Bergman goes on the warpath, using his connections elsewhere in the media to force CBS to air the full segment."
20 years ago, The Insider's All the President's Men-take on corporations behaving terribly -- and the thorns in their side like Wigand and Bergman -- made complete sense. It serviced the "adult drama" spot on then-Hollywood studios' slate and earned a wide theatrical release on the way to a much-deserved Oscar campaign. (The Insider earned seven Academy Award noms, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor - Russell Crowe, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Sadly, criminally, no wins.) Just a movie about two guys fighting those who would fight back at their need to expose bad things done by worse people.
Now, such crusading in the name of Journalism feels like a revolutionary act. While The Insider's black and white approach to the grey areas separating what's right and what's wrong ethically/morally may now play with a certain naïveté that it didn't have then, it's no less important and essential. Call the movie old fashioned, but, right now, we could use a strong dose of old fashioned.
As excellent as Pacino, Crowe, and Plummer are, the actor that steals the show is Bruce McGill. In the film's signature scene, one that garnered applause from the packed theater when I first saw it in Winter of '99 (the kind of applause reserved for action set pieces), McGill, playing the real-life lawyer Ron Motley, participates in one of Wigand's depositions before a Big Tobacco attorney in Mississippi. After that imposing attorney angrily demands that Wigand "do not talk," Motley goes from zero to red-faced -- culminating in a "Wipe that smirk off your face!" that is nothing short of edge-of-your-seat, fist-pumping cathartic. One of the best mid-points in movie history. (According to Vulture's piece, Mann told Ebiri that "McGill actually ruptured an intestine delivering those lines. 'He didn’t realize it until the next day!'", Mann recalled.)
Despite the caliber of talent in front of and behind the camera, The Insider is a movie that would struggle to ever get the greenlight. Touchstone Pictures, the film's production company -- and a division of Disney (!) -- could never release this movie today. Because they never would have made it.
The Hollywood production model has changed arguably as much as how people interpret truth and reality. (The fact that we are even at a place where what we see and hear can be debated or altered is for a longer piece, and maybe another movie worthy of Mann's considerable talents.) The Insider is a lost art; a relic from a time when Hollywood and audiences put a premium on telling and watching stories like this on 3000 screens, instead of waiting on the couch to add them to their Netflix queues.
It's also a cautionary tale, both in how it explores the toll truth-telling can take when the liars are in charge or gaining more power and how dangerous believing that truth can be when facts can be hidden or, worse, weaponized.
Wigand is, sometimes, a pain in the ass, sure. Mann and Roth did not shy away from the real-life figure's reportedly prickly or difficult demeanor. He was a nail Big Tobacco wanted to hammer down, a loyal member of their operation who through ego and moral necessity, couldn't choke on their lies like the smoke filling their customers' lungs. But Wigand is also a husband and father, with an obligation to protect his family's well-being even if that means they wake up one day to find a bullet standing tall in their mailbox. The emotional and personal consequences of his actions are brutal and long-lasting to him and his family; the fall from six-figure salary grace to the middle-class ranks of a Chemistry teacher is one that resonates with audiences as much as it unnerves them. We can relate to this struggle because Mann and Roth have constructed it to be the audiences'. Every panicked breath Wigand takes, every choice he second guesses, every step he takes to get closer to exposing a truth that, long-term, will all but be forgotten -- we feel like it is one of our own.
And Bergman's dogged pursuit to get Wigand's story on the public record, despite the ramifications to his private and professional life, are equally compelling in their impact. Mann and Roth excel at the characters' two-hander dynamic, putting them both on parallel tracks that pays off in the most subtle of call backs in the film's final moments. When Bergman, after closing the door on this story, is about to walk out the main entrance of CBS News HQ in New York, time slows down, Massive Attack's "Safe From Harm" kicks in on the soundtrack, and -- like Wigand leaving his office and entering uneasy into the world outside it, Bergman strides confidently, cooly, into that unknown. Waiting for the next story. Searching for it.
Another chance to fight for the truth. To try to make sure that "what got broken here" doesn't get worse.