We gave it a B
Early in The Insider, Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), the disputatious talking-head mascot of 60 Minutes, loses his cool. He’s about to sit down in a Middle Eastern hideaway to interview the leader of the Hezbollah, and he’s pissed off. The sheikh’s men are making demands — demands about how close Wallace can sit during the interview — and the great white journalist will have none of it. Boldly, he throws a tantrum, screaming into the face of a burly, scowling henchman. The courage! The chutzpah!
Moments later, the matter is resolved, and the segment’s producer, Lowell Berg-man (Al Pacino), wanders over to ask Wallace if he’s properly warmed up. Wallace replies that, yes, he’s gotten his heart started. The entire tantrum, you see, was a charade, a TV-diva exercise in throat clearing. Plummer, flaunting a smile that looks like it could out-smarm Liberace’s, is the juicy quintessence of ham — smug, righteous, law-yerly, infantile, and vain. He seems to be playing Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, etc. rolled into one. With exquisite timing, the scene makes its point: 60 Minutes may be a journalistic enterprise, but it is also showbiz. That epiphany, however, is one that the movie soon forgets.
Back in the States, Bergman stumbles onto a land mine of a story. He makes contact with an obscure scientist named Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a dour family man with distressed grayish blond hair, who was fired from one of the major tobacco companies. Wigand is sitting on something he’s scared to talk about, and Bergman, a journalist who says that he cares about people (he’s described as a former radical who worked for Ramparts), quietly convinces him that it’s his moral duty to go public with the story.
Wigand decides to come clean — to reveal that tobacco companies chemically enhance the nicotine content of cigarettes, upping their addictive properties. Wigand, who has already been asked by his former company, under duress, to sign an Orwellian confidentiality pact, now finds his family terrorized by the powers of Big Tobacco. He is trailed by stalkers, and death threats appear on his computer screen. Yet he goes on, fearful but unfazed, convinced that he’s doing the right thing.
Directed and cowritten by Michael Mann, The Insider is a vigorous and engrossing exercise in ’70s-conspiracy-movie nostalgia. From the moment that Bergman and Wigand commence their top secret relationship, via a dueling series of faxed communiques, the movie immerses us, with consummate flair and skill, in the backroom processes of news gathering. For 2 hours and 35 minutes, it unfurls the story of how Wigand, the man who blew the whistle on the tobacco industry, was promised the deliverance of a bully pulpit by Bergman and the corporate honchos at 60 Minutes, and how he got screwed in the process. The show decided not to run his interview; the executives killed it at the last moment when it looked as if it might result in a lawsuit that could topple CBS.
The movie, which anatomizes the corporate-media culture as an ominous vertical system, presents this decision as the end of Western journalistic integrity as we know it. Except that Wigand’s story ran, in full, in The Wall Street Journal two months after 60 Minutes axed it. The System didn’t fail — it triumphed. It was 60 Minutes that failed. Yet The Insider, savvy and entertaining as it is, doesn’t seem to comprehend that this was a cop-out of showbiz as much as it was of journalism.
I think that’s why the movie feels overly long: It’s about a molehill posing as a mountain. Well, not a molehill, exactly — but hardly the Fourth Estate’s version of the Watergate cover-up, either. Mann works hard to flesh out his characters. Crowe, sporting a thickened gut under his chemist-drone disguise, can’t keep his macho volatility from poking through (that actually works for the film), yet his performance, like his American accent, is a bit too studied; his Wigand seems, at times, a very noble replicant. Pacino, in fine form, idealizes Bergman, but in an irresistible way, making him wily, impassioned, four-square heroic. Ultimately, the movie says that this lone crusader took on the system and lost. It presents the monolithic forces he’s up against as a sinister revelation for the audience.
But back in the ’70s, when this sort of film flourished, those forces were a revelation. For the first time, pop culture dramatized the concentration of power in America. Now, we know all of that; it’s not news (it may well be an oversimplification). The Insider is a good but far from great movie because it portrays truth telling in America as far more imperiled than it is. B
Al Pacino; Russell Crowe