'The Insider' movie review: CBS news exposé barks, but doesn't bite
Michael Mann's 1999 movie The Insider quote exchange:
“It's old news. … We'll be ok,” says Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall), the creator of the CBS news show 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 series of scandals that erupted in early 1996, when it was revealed that CBS had refused to air an interview with a tobacco company whistleblower because the network feared the (financial) consequences.
What Freedom of the Press?
Based on Marie Brenner's Vanity Fair article about the events that led up to that embarrassing – and disturbing – incident, 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 multibillion-dollar lawsuit against the network.
'The Insider': 'Anachronistically manipulative'
The tale itself is both gripping and politically relevant. Had The Insider been peppered with lines and situations at least half as clever as the dialogue exchange at the beginning of this commentary, Mann's docudrama-cum-thriller would stand on a par with first-rate 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, Lowell Bergman is portrayed as a paragon of journalistic integrity, while Jeffrey Wigand is the quirky family man dedicated to the truth; most everybody else in The Insider is selfish, stupid, cowardly, and/or just plain evil.* Thus, reality is downsized to fit your usual audience-friendly 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.
Ham-filled, thrill-less thriller
Surprisingly – considering 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 absurdly heroic newsman 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 nerve to stand up to his bosses. He is too afraid to end his days “wandering in the wilderness of National Public Radio.”
'The Insider' lessons
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 two 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.
The Insider (1999).
Dir.: Michael Mann.
Cast: Al Pacino. Russell Crowe. Christopher Plummer. Diane Venora. Philip Baker Hall. Lindsay Crouse. Colm Feore. Michael Gambon. Rip Torn. Debi Mazar. Bruce McGill. Stephen Tobolowsky. Gena Gershon. Wings Hauser. Cliff Curtis. Michael Moore.
Scr.: Eric Roth and Michael Mann. From Marie Brenner's Vanity Fair article “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
CBS show '60 Minutes' Don Hewitt vs. Lowell Bergman
* At a June 2000 journalism conference in New York, 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt said the following:
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.
Lowell Bergman had left 60 Minutes the year before, upon the expiration of his contract.
'The Insider': Oscar Movies
Michael Mann's The Insider was nominated for seven Academy Awards.
- Best Picture
Prod.: Michael Mann. Pieter Jan Brugge.
Winner: American Beauty.
Prod.: Bruce Cohen. Dan Jinks.
- Best Director
Winner: Sam Mendes for American Beauty.
- Best Actor
Winner: Kevin Spacey for American Beauty.
- Best Adapted Screenplay
Eric Roth. Michael Mann.
Winner: John Irving for The Cider House Rules.
- Best Cinematography
Winner: Conrad L. Hall for American Beauty.
- Best Editing
William Goldenberg. Paul Rubell. David Rosenbloom.
Winner: Zach Staenberg for The Matrix.
- Best Sound
Andy Nelson. Doug Hemphill. Lee Orloff.
Winners: John T. Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, David E. Campbell, and David Lee for The Matrix.
The Insider cast information via the IMDb.
Christopher Plummer, Al Pacino, and Russell Crowe The Insider movie images: Touchstone Pictures / Buena Vista / Walt Disney Enterprises.