"It's old news. ... We'll be ok," says Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall), the creator of the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes. "These things have a half-life of 15 minutes."
"No, that's fame," replies 60 Minutes anchor Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer). "Fame has a 15-minute half-life. Infamy lasts a little longer."
The infamous "things" referred to by Hewitt and Wallace are the scandals that erupted in early 1996, when it was revealed that CBS News had refused to air an interview with a tobacco company whistleblower because the network feared the (financial) consequences.
Based on Marie Brenner's Vanity Fair article about the events that led up to that embarrassing incident, Michael Mann's docudrama The Insider tells the story of scientist Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), who turns against his former employer, tobacco giant Brown & Williamson, because the company has knowingly begun using potential carcinogens in its cigarettes.
Enter 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a newshound who knows a good story when he smells one. Together, Wigand and Bergman must fight not only the all-powerful tobacco industry, but also state and U.S. government agents – ever at the service of big business – and CBS's top executives, who fear that the anti-tobacco segment may lead to a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against the network.
The tale itself is both gripping and politically relevant; if The Insider had been peppered with lines and situations at least half as clever as the aforementioned dialogue exchange, this docudrama-cum-thriller would stand on a par with great cinematic exposés such as Costa-Gavras' Z and Robert Redford's Quiz Show. Unfortunately, director-screenwriter Michael Mann and co-writer Eric Roth (one of the Forrest Gump culprits) have created a film that tilts heavily toward simplistic melodrama, an approach that makes this attack on lies and deception feel anachronistically manipulative.
For instance, Bergman is portrayed as a paragon of journalistic integrity, while Wigand is the quirky family man dedicated to the truth; most everybody else is selfish, stupid, cowardly, or just plain evil. Thus, reality is downsized to fit your average by-the-book movie plot, with heroes making grandiose speeches and villains cowering in silence. Even a pivotal Mississippi courtroom scene seems as realistic as the stuff found in daytime soaps.
Surprisingly – considering that this is a Michael Mann movie – The Insider also disappoints as a thriller. The action and suspense sequences are so blatantly phony that I found it hard to believe that this film was directed by the same man who orchestrated the exhilarating bank robbery in Heat.
Not helping matters are the performances of the two leads. Plastered with ageing make-up, Russell Crowe plays Jeffrey Wigand as if he were auditioning for his role in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind. Crowe's Wigand stutters, displays a permanent frown, and is averse to looking people in the eye.
Perhaps trying to compensate for Crowe's mannered "underplaying," Al Pacino goes to the other extreme. As a result, his overly heroic Lowell Bergman comes across as more than a little overbearing – less because of the character's traits than because of the actor's histrionics.
All the while, Christopher Plummer hams it up as Mike Wallace. All ego and little sense, this Wallace has enough chutzpah to confront Islamic terrorists but lacks the courage to stand up to his bosses. He is too afraid to end his days "wandering in the wilderness of National Public Radio."
Michael Mann has proven himself a superior action-suspense director, but his emphasis on melodrama gets the best of him in The Insider. Even so, this deeply flawed effort is worth a look on the strength of the real-life story on which it is based. Additionally, the film's lessons remain quite valuable: Smoking is bad for you; corporate greed is bad for you, for freedom of speech, and for democracy.
A no less pertinent – albeit unintentional – lesson The Insider teaches us is that simplistic storytelling is bad for movies. Much can be learned from that.
An aside: "When a journalist who professes to be dedicated to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth conspires with a screenwriter to concoct a movie about himself that portrays him, by name, saying things he never said and doing things he never did, that is not a journalist I would allow within a hundred miles of a newsroom," said 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt at a June 2000 journalism conference in New York. Bergman had left 60 Minutes the year before, when his contract expired.
THE INSIDER (1999). Director: Michael Mann. Cast: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Colm Feore, Michael Gambon, Rip Torn. Screenplay: Eric Roth and Michael Mann; from Marie Brenner's Vanity Fair article "The Man Who Knew Too Much."
Note: A version of this The Insider review was initially posted in December 2004.