- The Insider (1999) movie review: Michael Mann’s socially conscious drama/thriller – co-written by Mann and Eric Roth – shows that corporate greed is bad for your health, for freedom of speech, and for democracy itself.
- Regrettably, this well-intentioned, real-life-inspired message movie is marred by weak pacing, hammy performances by leads Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, and TV-movie-like characters and situations.
- The Insider was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actor (Russell Crowe), and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The Insider movie review: Michael Mann’s 1999 CBS News & tobacco industry exposé barks but doesn’t bite
Here’s a brief dialogue exchange from Michael Mann’s generally well-regarded 1999 movie The Insider:
“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 initially refused to air an interview with tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand because the then Westinghouse Electric Corporation-controlled network feared the financial consequences.
What freedom of the press?
Based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article about the events that led to that alarming – though in all probability not all that infrequent – 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 federal government agents – regardless of party, ever at the service of Big Business – and CBS’s own top executives, who fear that the anti-tobacco segment could result in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit against the network.
Manipulative attack on lies & deception
The topics presented in The Insider are both intriguing and politically relevant. Had the film been peppered with lines and situations at least half as clever as the dialogue exchange at the top of this commentary, Mann’s docudrama-cum-thriller would have stood on a par with skillful cinematic social/political exposés like Costa-Gavras’ Z and Missing, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, Mike Nichols’ Silkwood, and Robert Redford’s Quiz Show.
Unfortunately, director-screenwriter Michael Mann and co-writer Eric Roth (one of the guilty parties involved in the making of Forrest Gump) opted to tilt their narrative toward the more commercially friendly realm of simple-minded storytelling – virtuous heroes, slimy villains – an approach (à la the following year’s Erin Brockovich) that makes this attack on lies and deception feel hypocritically manipulative.
Lowell Bergman, for instance, is portrayed as a paragon of journalistic integrity, while Jeffrey Wigand, apart from his acute nerdiness, is your Average (Hollywood-style) American, dedicated to his family and to the truth. Most everybody else in The Insider is selfish, stupid, cowardly, and/or just plain evil.
Reality is thus downsized to fit onto movie theater screens, with heroes making grandiose speeches while villains cower in silence. Even a pivotal Mississippi courtroom scene feels as true-to-life as the stuff found in daytime soaps.
More surprisingly, The Insider also disappoints as a thriller. The action and suspense sequences are so patently ineffectual that it’s hard to believe that the film was directed by the same man who orchestrated the exhilarating bank heist in Heat.
Not helping matters are the performances of the two leads. Plastered with aging make-up, soon-to-be Best Actor Academy Award winner Russell Crowe (Gladiator, 2000) plays Jeffrey Wigand as if he were auditioning for the role of John Nash 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 his co-star’s mannered “underplaying,” Best Actor Oscar winner Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman, 1992) goes to the other extreme. As a result, his preposterously heroic newsman comes across as an overbearing bore – less because of the character’s (however fictitious) traits than because of the actor’s histrionics.
All the while, veteran Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music, Inside Daisy Clover) hams it up as Mike Wallace. All ego and little sense, this Wallace has enough chutzpah to confront Islamic terrorists, but, terrified of ending his days “wandering in the wilderness of National Public Radio,” he lacks the nerve to stand up to his CBS bosses.
The Insider lessons
In years past, Michael Mann proved 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 of greed and corruption on which it is based. Besides, the film’s two lessons remain as valuable as ever:
- Smoking is bad for you.
- Corporate greed – and control of information – is bad not only for you but also for freedom of speech and for democracy itself.
A no less pertinent, albeit unintentional, lesson The Insider teaches us is that simplistic storytelling is bad for movies.
The Insider (1999)
Director: Michael Mann.
Screenplay: Eric Roth & Michael Mann.
From Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
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.
“The Insider Movie (1999) Review” notes
Don Hewitt vs. Lowell Bergman
 At a June 2000 journalism conference in New York City, 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 Movie” endnotes
Awards season honors
The Insider won four Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards: Best Picture, Actor (Russell Crowe), Supporting Actor (Christopher Plummer), and Cinematography.
Both Russell Crowe and Christopher Plummer were also the choices of the National Society of Film Critics.
Al Pacino and Russell Crowe The Insider movie images: Touchstone Pictures | Walt Disney Enterprises.
“The Insider Movie (1999) Review: Feeble Sociopolitical Thriller” last updated in May 2022.