You can have a pretty good time with The Insider while recognizing that it’s essentially a high-toned rabble-rouser. It has a buzz of excitement and complexity — the sense that we’re seeing the actual back-room decisions that affect lives. In 1995, 60 Minutes taped an interview with Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a former higher-up researcher at the tobacco company Brown & Williamson. Wigand had some scarier-than-average insights to share about the billionaire tobacconists, mainly the fact that they were inserting ammonia into their cigarettes to provide the consumer with a faster “fix.” It had been part of common knowledge for decades that cigarettes are hazardous and addictive; here was a guy who told exactly how and why. Except he almost didn’t. At the last minute, CBS blinked and aired a significantly altered version of the interview, and the story became not only that B&W was covering up, but that CBS was covering up, despite the loud protests of segment producer Lowell Bergman and the vacillating Mike Wallace, who conducted the interview and, according to the film, was torn between journalistic integrity and his desire not to bring CBS down with a fatal lawsuit from B&W.
The nice thing about The Insider is that it seems legitimately interested in the thorny ethical issues it raises. There may be clearcut villains here (Michael Gambon, as the representative tobacco CEO, may as well have a mustache to twirl), but there are no easy heroes. Bergman (Al Pacino) is a grandstander, a tunnel-visioned idealist who worships at the altar of his own integrity; Wigand (Russell Crowe) is a pinched, irritable man, soft in the middle, who has gotten too accustomed to the easy flow of tobacco money. We see these men in harsh light, observe their flaws, and gradually watch them discover their strengths. Though at heart it’s another David-and-Goliath saga, these Davids have a lot of baggage to cast off — ego, paranoia — before they can effectively fight the giant.
At an earlier stage in his career, Al Pacino might have played Wigand, or someone like him, and of course he did (Serpico). Here he’s the noisy fly of conscience buzzing around the head of the true hero, and though the movie is constructed as Bergman’s story — his struggle, his fight to get Wigand on the air — Pacino plays his end close to the vest, exploding only at key moments, when explosions are called for. He essentially (and subtly) plays Bergman as if he were the supporting actor, regardless of his top billing; he understands that it’s really Russell Crowe’s movie.
I’ve been enjoying Crowe’s work a lot longer than most people, who seem to think he materialized out of nowhere for L.A. Confidential; as far back as 1992 he was low-key and impressive (and also funny, which he rarely is now, sad to say) in the Australian import Proof, where he starred opposite Hugo Weaving (The Matrix). One senses, in Crowe’s recent performances, a reserve of bottomless anger barely held in check. Is this due to the frustration of a decade in relative obscurity despite his fine work? (L.A. Confidential wasn’t the big hit that might have broken him out.) In The Insider, Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand is on constant low simmer — the only time you really see him relax is when he’s with his wife (Diane Venora) and two little daughters — and his eruptions are mesmerizing, the bleats of a wounded soft-bellied animal (Crowe put on some weight for the role) with the added power of a defensive lion. Wigand knows all too well that his status as a family man — what makes him care about what the tobacco industry is doing — is precisely what makes him a vulnerable target. When he first senses that his family is being threatened, you can almost hear the blood gurgling into his head.
This electric, fleet-footed drama has been brought to you by Michael Mann, of whose previous work (particularly the lugubrious Heat, also with Pacino) I’m not overly fond. In the past, Mann has designed his movies as kinetic ideas on display — abstract men at war. Here, miraculously, Mann generally drops the vague nonsense and digs in with both hands. There’s still a bit of hey-look-Ma-I’m-a-director in his style — shots held for a tad longer than they need to be; an ongoing fetish for massive close-ups — but he puts the style in service of the script. Mann wrote it with Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), and perhaps the presence of a collaborator helped to rein Mann in, to keep him attentive to the friction of emotion.
The moviemakers don’t pretend that the story will end happily; indeed, the very necessity for the movie itself is proof that Wigand and Bergman didn’t succeed as well as they’d hoped, since Wigand is not exactly a household name. At best, he was simply one more whistle-blower watched by millions on a lazy Sunday evening, confirming what everyone already knew about the greedy bastards running the tobacco industry (or any industry). Like Oliver Stone in JFK, Mann may be saying that one lone, crazy, discredited man speaking out against official lies might just be enough. But enough for what? In the movie, we don’t see anyone watching the interview and rising up in indignation, and chances are they won’t watch the movie and do that, either. The heroes of the movie seem to know this. They haven’t lost the fight, but they haven’t really won, either.