"The Insider"

Part of the genius of Michael Mann's muckracking drama is the casting of Russell Crowe as a thickset, middle-aged tobacco industry whistle-blower.

By Charles Taylor
Published August 10, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Insider"
Directed by Michael Mann
Starring Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer and Diane Venora
Touchstone; widescreen
Extras: Theatrical trailer, making-of featurette, inside-a-scene feature

For sheer grandiosity, no current American filmmaker can touch Michael Mann. The most common result of Mann's inflated, modernist sensibility has been the pumped-up pulp of pictures like "Thief," "Manhunter" and "Heat." But the muckraking drama "The Insider" provides the perfect fit for Mann's cold, stately style. The story of Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco industry whistle-blower who jeopardizes his career (and, the movie implies, his life) by spilling the beans to "60 Minutes" reporter Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) has more than enough meat to stand up to Mann. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti keeps Wigand and Bergman near to us with his enormous close-ups, though often those close-ups are pushed to one side of the Cinemascope screen. The mood of measured paranoia that Mann imparts gets you so keyed up that you find yourself peering into that empty space, waiting to see what might spring out of it. The close-ups tell us that these men are heroes, but the visual impact of seeing them adrift in cavernous spaces -- hotel rooms, boardrooms, courtrooms -- is the perfect complement to the feeling that their fates are ruled by huge, faceless entities. (If your only alternative is to watch "The Insider" on a "reformatted" video, you might as well skip it.)

What happened when Wigand breached his corporate confidentiality agreement and put himself at risk, only to have "60 Minutes," fearful of a lawsuit, refuse to air his interview, was a scandal covered in the New York Times and Vanity Fair (where the article that was the inspiration for this movie appeared). Movies that take on the media for cowardice or sensationalism or insensitivity are nothing new. But "The Insider" is perhaps the first movie to fully address the question of how reporters can function ethically in the era of mergers and acquisitions, when news may often be economically detrimental to a newspaper or a network's parent company. By the time the media is using the tobacco industry as its source for a false smear campaign against Wigand, the wobbly barrier between news and business seems to have vanished.

Everywhere you look in "The Insider," somebody's doing some terrific acting. Christopher Plummer does a silkily malevolent turn parodying the narcissism of Mike Wallace; as CBS's legal counsel, Gina Gershon is every shellacked corporate shark who's careful not to let the blood on her teeth show. There are sharp supporting performances from a first-rate cast that includes Diane Venora, Michael Gambon, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar and Stephen Toblowsky. And in a terrific one-scene performance, Bruce McGill plays a Mississippi attorney general whose courtroom outburst at tobacco company lawyers provides a much-needed release of tension. As Bergman, Pacino harnesses his free-floating intensity, and considerable underplayed wit, to the plight of a principled man who's struggling to maintain his ethics and not fall into the Judas role that has been designed for him. It may be the most accessible role of his career.

And as Wigand, Russell Crowe, with his thinning gray hair and paunch, is simply phenomenal. Wigand could have been a clichi, the average man who sticks to his principles and faces down Goliath. What Crowe delivers is much thornier, a man spurred as much by stubbornness and pride as by integrity. There's a certain distance around Wigand that cannot be broached, even by the people closest to him. Everyone has met strong, straight-arrow men like this before; no one has ever put one on-screen as fully as has Crowe.

The best reason to watch the making-of featurette included on this DVD (which is as blandly promotional as most of its ilk) is for a glimpse of the real Jeffrey Wigand. You look at this thickset middle-aged man and think, Who would ever have thought of casting Russell Crowe to play him? And then you watch the movie and thank God that Michael Mann did.

To the next review in the DVD Room

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Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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