[box cover]

The Insider

Michael Mann's 1999 chronicle of tobacco whistle-blower Dr. Jeffrey Wigand — the former head of research for industry giant Brown & Williamson — potentially could have been a boring account of tedious legal quandaries, or it could have been an anti-tobacco screed, as bashing cigarette-makers has become more important over the past few years to the American government than such things as, say, teenage pregnancy or the ever-present trafficking of illegal drugs. But even if you (as this writer) think that taxpayer-funded anti-smoking campaigns have gotten completely out of hand (along with the multi-million-dollar legal judgments now routinely awarded to smokers who, of their own free will, probably would have sucked down smoke from the tailpipe of a Lexus to give the morning that extra boost), Mann's film cleverly sublimates the many public-health issues and lawyerly questions surrounding this brief moment in American history, focusing instead on the intricate, tense relationship between scholarly Wigand (Russell Crowe) and hot-headed 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), as Wigand defied a confidentiality agreement and alleged physical threats from his former employers in order to reveal their secret tobacco research to the public, while Bergman battled the CBS brass to get the story aired, despite a potential lawsuit from Brown & Williamson that could have resulted in the tobacco firm actually owning the television network. For a film that runs well over two hours, The Insider is a masterpiece of both plotting and execution, carefully setting up the monumental battles between these two men and the enormous corporations that controlled what they were allowed to say, so that, by the third act (as Wigand has descended into a near-catatonic depression while Bergman accuses CBS of killing the story for financial gains), the drama draws as taut as a gallows rope. Pacino's work here is solid, and one that his admirers will appreciate, alternating between tactile negotiations with his source and balls-to-the-wall screaming matches with his higher-ups. However, fans of Crowe, whose breakthrough performance in L.A. Confidential threatened to typecast him for eternity, might be surprised by his nuanced performance in this film. A lot of the well-regarded Russell Crowe intensity is here, but Wigand is a man of science and rational thought, and these elements of the bespectacled chemist's personality are subtly conveyed, even though Crowe has the unmistakable bulk of an NFL tight end. Christopher Plummer, as 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace, is just as good as the leads in his supporting role, and he has the additional task of conveying the personality, mannerisms, and vocal inflections of perhaps the best-known journalist in U.S. television history. Regular viewers of 60 Minutes know right away that Plummer isn't Wallace, but after just a few scenes his sublime skill causes the distinction to fade — he's so good that, after watching The Insider, you may find yourself thinking that Wallace was actually in the film. Solid widescreen transfer, DD 5.1. Seven-minute "making-of" featurette, trailer. And don't be duped by the irresponsible packaging — even though the keep-case suggests that there is a "commentary" on board with Pacino and Crowe, there is none.
—JJB



Back to Quick Reviews Index: [A-F] [G-L] [M-R] [S-Z]

Back to Main Page