The Insider (1999) ***1/2
Directed by Michael Mann; written by Eric Roth and Mann, based on an article by Marie Brenner, "The Man Who Knew Too Much"( in Vanity Fair, May 1996.) Photography, Dante Spinotti. Editing, William Goldenberg, Paul Rubell & David Rosenbloom. Production designer, Brian Morris. Music, Lisa Gerrard & Pieter Bourke; Produced by Mann & Pieter Jan Brugge. Cast: Cast: Al Pacino (Lowell Bergman), Russell Crowe (Jeffrey Wigand), Christopher Plummer (Mike Wallace), Michael Gambon (Thomas Sandefur), Diane Venora (Liane Wigand), Bruce McGill (Ron Motley), Philip Baker Hall (Don Hewitt), Lindsay Crouse (Sharon Tiller), Gina Gershon (Helen Caperelli).et al. A Touchstone Pictures release.156 minutes. R (language)
In 312 A.D. as the Roman Emperor Constantine's army was about to do battle with Maxentius, a Christian cross appeared in the sky, with the words "In hoc signum vinces" ("with this sign, you will win"). Constantine did win, had this inscription placed on his imperial standards and decreed that Christianity was the Empire's official religion.
"The Insider" is Michael Mann's best film to date, as well as one of the best of the year. Its subject is a factual, specific case, but even more importantly, the background and the obvious subtext are about capitalist greed, the kind whose emblem should be "with this sign, you will win" around the image of money, whether a dollar, a mark, a euro or whatever.
The film probably holds the all-time record for legal maneuvers, clearances, consultations and precautions, before and during its making. This, because it is a docudrama whose "docu" aspect could invite anything, from blocking its release to lawsuits.
The story is familiar to most of the American public. Biochemist Jeffrey Wigand, Ph.D, was an R & D vice-president at Brown & Williamson, the third largest tobacco company. He earned $300,000 a year plus perks. Suddenly he is fired, arbitrarily. By signing a confidentiality agreement he keeps such perks as health insurance. But when asked to sign another, far more stringent document, he refuses.
Worried, bitter, even scared of reprisals, Wigand contacted Lowell Bergman, a "60 Minutes" producer at CBS, An expose of B & W --and, by implication, the other cigarette-makers whom Wigand calls "the seven dwarfs"-- was to be telecast by Mike Wallace, with Wigand present. But several factors intervened, mainly the fear that a lawsuit against CBS by the nicotinizers could run into billions and result in the smoke-Godzilla obliterating the CBS Mothra.
Centering on the actions and reaction of Bergman and Wigand, the movie does a very good job of depicting the implications, complications, side-effects and ramifications of the case, and of taking the viewer through the dedalus of (mostly) genuine facts and events. This task is greatly helped by brilliant performances, a high budget put to (mostly) good use, a strong sense of dialogue and production values.
Michael Mann is widely known for his TV work, notably the "Miami Vice" series. Since 1981, he also directed the theatrical movies "Thief," "The Keep," "Manhunter," "The Last of the Mohicans," and "Heat." It is an honorable record, generally influenced by TV's techniques and larger-than-life tendencies.
Deliberately, the movie adopts a super-visual approach. Mann, with cinematographer Dante Spinotti ("L.A. Confidential," "True Colors," "The Last of the Mohicans) and editor William Goldenberg ("Heat") go all out in this direction.
"The Insider" opens with a long prologue in which an American in some unnamed Middle Eastern country, is taken, blindfolded, on a mysterious ride (full of local color) to meet a mysterious Arab sheik, the leader of a terrorist group. The man from the West turns out to be Mike Wallace ( Christopher Plummer) there for a scoop, a hard-to-get interview. Why this hors d'oeuvre? To build up the powerful, take-no-prisoners persona of Wallace. To remind us of his tough style. To spell out his high standards.
The movie-Wallace will reappear many times in the course of the picture. Plummer is very good, yet it may be difficult to suspend one's disbelief since the real Wallace's face, so familiar and distinctive keeps coming to mind. So does Al Pacino's. That's the price of fame.
There are no such problems with the other performers. You watch with conviction the complex --and in the last analysis, mysterious-- Wigand, incarnated by the excellent, Australian-raised Russell Crowe ("Proof," "L.A. Confidential")-- artfully made older and heavier. Yet even if Pacino remains Pacino, his intensity does help in making us accept him as Lowell Bergman. Tricky stuff.
Did I say tricky? The Middle East prologue (shot in Israel) is a harbinger of razzle-dazzle cinematography. Incessantly, every small or big filmmaking trick comes into play. Angles, slow motion, focusing, zooming, crawls, video footage, the steadicam, reflections, extreme close-ups, nightmares and daymares, color symbolism, you name it. Nothing was left out.
This both works and does not. Sometimes you think you're watching an avant-garde, experimental or "art" movie. Sometimes it might give one sea-sickness. Sometimes it is like an honest-to-goodness documentary. Sometimes it looks like a solid "traditional" drama. What is certain is that Mann & Co. went for overkill, ignoring the "less is more" principle, adopting a "more is more" stance. The result is that your eyes get fatigued, that they may need stabilizers, that things can get muddled.
Even so I will not rain on Mann's parade. In spite of all those distractions, it does keep you in a state of concentration which demands of you not to miss anything. It is a peculiar situation which will doubtlessly require a second or third viewing before you come to a valid conclusion. More viewings at nearly two hours and forty minutes? Yes, since the film has its own, special fascination. Even confirmed addicts who normally yearn for a smoking break will stay put and not think of the weed.
Tobacco reigns here, satanically. It is a clear-cut fact that the tobacco giants are proven liars. They cook the cigarettes' nicotine with chemicals which make the smokes even more addictive -- more so, it seems, than many hard drugs. The corporations are worse than gangsters or mafiosi. They commit mass murders, from greed, for profit. It is capitalistic materialism at its worst and deadliest. They, and other mega-corporations run the country. And, while the techniques of the movie are exaggerated, its message does not seem to be.
We are a long way from Frank Capra's America I Love You or The Little People Win Over The Big Nasties. Or put it this way. This is all about the dark side of Capra, a side that he would play down. The fact that Wigand aided the lawsuits instigated by the Sovereign State of Mississippi and joined by all the other States of the Union to force the tobacco industry onto a 246 billion (that's a "b") settlement, still is light years away from a Capraesque happy ending.
There are puzzling moments as well as privileged ones. Samples: Bruce McGill as a Mississippi lawyer shouting down and shutting up a B & W lawyer, in the best Southern style of forceful, colorful rhetoric. Gina Gerson's handsome, chic and cool CBS legal eagle bringing in bad news. A transitional section after the Pascagoula sequence in which strings and a male voice do a beautiful, mood-enhancing, dirge-like song. Cleverly too, the script avoids simplistic black-and-white contrasts as it follows the twists of "60 Minutes" painting itself into a corner.
Pointed digs are numerous. Samples: when referring to the armies of lawyers hired by the tobacco industry, Ken Starr's firm is among them. Or aging Mike Wallace speaking of his future: "I don't plan to spend the rest of my days wandering in the wilderness of PBS!"
The cast is of near-epic size, yet most appearances are short and to the point. Machinations and counter-plots, on both sides, are effective. The thriller aspect of the movie is powerful. The story is not especially easy to follow. In certain areas one will cavil at confusions which Alfred Hitchcock would scold. Yet credit the film for not spoon-feeding its audience.