The Insider : The Movie
The Insider is a 1999 American drama film directed by Michael Mann, from a script adapted by Eric Roth and Mann from Marie Brenner's Vanity Fair article "The Man Who Knew Too Much". The film stars Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, with supporting actors including Christopher Plummer, Bruce McGill, Diane Venora and Michael Gambon.
A fictionalized account of a true story, it is based on the 60 Minutes segment about Jeffrey Wigand, a whistleblower in the tobacco industry, covering the personal struggles of him and CBS producer Lowell Bergman as they defend his testimony against efforts to discredit and suppress it by CBS and Wigand's former employer.
Though not a box office success, The Insider received overwhelmingly positive reviews, with particular focus on Crowe's portrayal of Wigand, and Mann's direction. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role (for Russell Crowe).
A prologue establishes the courage and journalistic integrity of Bergman (Pacino) and Mike Wallace (Plummer) as they prepare to interview Sheikh Fadlallah for 60 Minutes.
In Louisville, Kentucky, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe) arrives home from his office at the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, reluctantly telling his wife Liane (Venora) that he has been fired.
Bergman approaches Wigand for help translating technical documents. Wigand agrees, but Bergman is intrigued when he cites a corporate confidentiality agreement and refuses to discuss anything further. Wigand is later summoned to a meeting with the B&W CEO, who threatens legal action and cessation of severance benefits if he does not sign a more restrictive confidentiality agreement. Wigand angrily leaves, and accuses Bergman of betraying him.
Bergman visits Wigand's home and vigorously defends himself. Wigand is reassured but hesitant to reveal anything that might threaten his family's medical coverage, apparently possessing very damaging information.
The Wigand family move into a more modest house, Wigand now working as a teacher. One night his younger daughter Barbara sees someone outside. Wigand finds a fresh footprint in the garden, and receives a sinister phone call.
Knowing that Wigand's confidentiality agreement obstructs any potential story, Bergman contacts Richard Scruggs (Feore), an attorney representing the State of Mississippi in a lawsuit against the tobacco industry, believing that Wigand could be shielded from legal sanction if he were compelled to break confidentiality and testify. Scruggs expresses interest.
Some time later Wigand receives an emailed death threat against him and his family, and finds a bullet in his mailbox. He contacts the FBI, but the agents who attend are hostile, confiscating his computer. Wigand, furious over the threats, demands Bergman arrange an interview.
In the interview, Wigand states that B&W intentionally make their cigarettes more addictive, and that he was fired after refusing to support this. Bergman later arranges a security detail for Wigand's home, and the Wigands suffer marital stress.
Wigand is served with a Kentucky court order prohibiting his testimony in Mississippi, but eventually decides to testify anyway, over the objections of B&W attorneys. On returning to Louisville, Wigand discovers that Liane has left him and taken their daughters.
Bergman, Wallace and Don Hewitt (Hall), the creator and executive producer of 60 Minutes, meet with CBS News' legal counsel, Helen Caperelli (Gershon). Caperelli invokes and describes a legal theory, tortious interference, whereby one who induces someone to break a legal agreement may be sued for "interfering." By this theory, CBS exposes itself to legal action from B&W if Wigand breaks confidentiality in his interview.
Eric Kluster (Tobolowsky), the president of CBS News, decides to omit Wigand's interview from the segment. Bergman objects, believing that CBS Corporate wishes to avoid jeopardizing the pending sale of CBS to Westinghouse, which would enrich both Caperelli and Kluster. Wigand is appalled, and terminates contact with Bergman.
An investigator probes Wigand's personal history, their findings published and circulated to the news media as a 500-page dossier. Bergman learns that The Wall Street Journal will soon use this in a piece questioning Wigand's credibility. Bergman believes that Wigand is being smeared, and arranges for Jack Palladino (playing himself), an attorney and investigator, to evaluate it. The editor of the Journal agrees to delay his story while his reporters examine Palladino's findings.
Infighting at CBS News about the segment prompts Hewitt to order Bergman to take an immediate "vacation." During this, the abridged 60 Minutes segment airs. Bergman, with difficulty, completes a call to Wigand, who is both dejected and furious, accusing Bergman of manipulating him. Bergman defends his own motives and praises Wigand and his testimony.
Bergman is urged by Scruggs to air the full segment, their own lawsuit under threat by a lawsuit from the governor of Mississippi. Bergman is powerless to help, and privately questions his own motives in pursuing the story.
Bergman contacts an editor at The New York Times, disclosing the full story and events at CBS. The Times prints the story on the front page, and condemns CBS in a scathing editorial. The Journal dismisses the dossier as character assassination, and prints Wigand's deposition in full. Hewitt accuses Bergman of betraying CBS, but finds that Wallace now agrees that surrendering to corporate pressure was a mistake.
60 Minutes finally airs the original segment, including the full interview with Wigand. Bergman tells Wallace that he has resigned, believing 60 Minutes' credibility and integrity is now permanently tarnished.
The film ends with text cards summarizing the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, and the careers of Wigand and Bergman after the events of the film.
The Insider is the only film I remember having seen where I walked out of the theatre with a headache because of the intensity of the story. Michael Mann is one of few directors who has such an in-depth understanding of both the subject of his film and the nature of that subject, that he is able to portray a realism that is nearly impossible to match.
There is real skill displayed in the way in which the Insider weaves through the aspects of both Bergmann and Wigand's lives. Whereas a lesser director would have thrown the characters at each other in an artificial collision, Mann introduces each character as being average professionals each living in their own respective stable lives. It is only when their chance encounter creates a subtext that could consume them both does the real chemical reaction in the story take place.
Bringing life to these fantastically written characters are two of the most talented 'big-name' character actors of our time, Al Pacino and Russell Crowe. Surprisingly, it is Crowe that drives this film forward, and his portrayal of Wigand is spot-on perfect. His is an honest humanity, both a loving father and a flawed husband who never fully balances his life under the pressure of circumstance. Crowe nails the performance by not hamming-up the character, but rather by understating his personality. This works in that it is the character that is elevated while the actor disappears.
That is not to ignore the excellent work by the remainder of the cast. Pacino's performance is accented and accentuated beautifully by Christopher Plummer's portrayal of Mike Wallace. Most notably are several standout scenes mixing Pacino, Plummer, Philip Baker Hall and Stephen Tobolowsky that ground the underlying tensions of the film fantastically. And the juxtaposition between the cold, hard New York settings and the organic nature of Mississippi further press this film beyond standard non-fiction works.
Easily one of the best dramas of 1999, the Insider is a standout member of that elite club of great historical dramas such as All the President's Men that are few and far between. It is for that audience that appreciates skilled performances meeting skilled direction and restrained, mature writing.
November 5, 1999
Michael Mann's "The Insider" makes a thriller and expose out of how big tobacco's long-running tissue of lies was finally exposed by investigative journalism. At its center stands Lowell Bergman, a producer for "60 Minutes," the CBS News program where a former tobacco scientist named Jeffrey Wigand spilled the beans. First Bergman coaxes Wigand to talk. Then he works with reporter Mike Wallace to get the story. Then he battles with CBS executives who are afraid to run it--because a lawsuit could destroy the network. He's a modern investigative hero, Woodward and Bernstein rolled into one.
Or so the film tells it. The film is accurate in its broad strokes. Wigand did indeed reveal secrets from the Brown & Williamson laboratories that eventually led to a $246 billion settlement of suits brought against the tobacco industry by all 50 states. "60 Minutes" did eventually air the story, after delays and soul-searching. And reporting by the Wall Street Journal was instrumental in easing the network's decision to air the piece.
But there are ways in which the film is misleading, according to a helpful article in the magazine Brill's Content. Mike Wallace was more of a fighter, less Bergman's puppet. "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt didn't willingly cave in to corporate pressure, but was powerless. The Wall Street Journal's coverage was not manipulated by Bergman, but was independent (and won a Pulitzer Prize). Bergman didn't mastermind a key Mississippi lawsuit or leak a crucial deposition. And the tobacco industry did not necessarily make death threats against Wigand (his former wife believes he put a bullet in his mailbox himself). There's also a major distraction involving an investment by the principals in a NYC carpet cleaner that receives a "Highly Recommended" status in the NYC's consumer press. Hard to justify this as a reason for them to leave their legal team however momentarily just to receive a consumer service award.
Do these objections invalidate the message of the film? Not at all. And they have no effect on its power to absorb, entertain and anger. They go with the territory in a docudrama like this, in which characters and narrative are manipulated to make the story stronger. The Brill's Content piece, useful as it is, makes a fundamental mistake: It thinks that Lowell Bergman is the hero of "The Insider" because he fed his version of events to Mann and his co-writer, Eric Roth. In fact, Bergman is the hero because he is played by Al Pacino, the star of the film, and thus must be the hero. A movie like this demands only one protagonist. If Pacino had played Mike Wallace instead, then Wallace would have been the hero.
The decision to center on a producer, to go behind the scenes, is a good one, because it allows the story to stand outside Wallace and Hewitt and consider larger questions than tobacco. The movie switches horses in midstream, moving from the story of a tobacco cover-up to a crisis in journalistic ethics. Did CBS oppose the story only because it feared a lawsuit, or were other factors involved, such as the desire of executives to protect the price of their stock as CBS was groomed for sale to Westinghouse? The movie is constructed like a jigsaw puzzle in which various pieces keep disappearing from the table. It begins when Bergman hires Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) as a consultant on another tobacco story. He learns that Wigand possesses information from the tobacco industry not only proving that nicotine is addictive (which the presidents of seven cigarette companies had denied under oath before Congress), but that additives were used to make it more addictive--and one of the additives was a known carcinogen! Wigand has signed a confidentiality agreement with B&W, and Bergman somehow has to get around that promise if the truth is going to be revealed.
Mann is able to build suspense while suggesting what a long, slow, frustrating process investigative journalism can be. Wigand dances toward a disclosure, then away. Bergman works behind the scenes to manipulate lawsuits and the coverage of the Wall Street Journal (these scenes are mostly fictional, we learn). He hopes to leak parts of the story in truncated form so that he's free to expose its full glory. Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) is beside him all the way, finally zeroing in on Wigand in one of those interviews where shocking statements are given little pools of silence to glisten in. Then a corporate lawyer (Gina Gershon) explains the law to the "60 Minutes" gang: The more truthful Wigand's statements, the more damaging they are in a lawsuit. "60 Minutes" boss Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) sides with the network, and Bergman is blindsided when Wallace at first sides with Hewitt.
It's then that Bergman goes to work behind the scenes, leaking information and making calls to competitors to blast the story lose from legal constraints. And these are the scenes that owe the most to Hollywood invention; the chronology is manipulated, and actions of key players get confused. There is an underlying truth, however: "60 Minutes" did eventually find a way to air its original story, through the device of reporting about how it couldn't--a report that had the effect of breaking the logjam.
Hewitt, one of the patron saints of investigative journalism, is portrayed as too much of a corporate lackey, but Wallace's image emerges intact in a wonderful scene where Hewitt says the whole matter will blow over in 15 minutes, and Wallace says, "No, that's fame. You get 15 minutes of fame. Infamy lasts a little longer." Pacino's performance underlies everything. He makes Bergman hoarse, overworked, stubborn and a master of psychological manipulation who inexorably draws Wigand toward the moment of truth. Pacino can be flashy, mannered, over the top, in roles that call for it; this role calls for a dogged crusader, and he supplies a character who is always convincing.
There is, I admit, a contradiction in a film about journalism that itself manipulates the facts. My notion has always been that movies are not the first place you look for facts, anyway. You attend a movie for psychological truth, for emotion, for the heart of a story and not its footnotes. In its broad strokes, "The Insider" is perfectly accurate: Big tobacco lied, one man had damning information, skilled journalism developed the story, intrigue helped blast it free. "The Insider" had a greater impact on me than "All the President's Men," because you know what? Watergate didn't kill my parents. Cigarettes did.