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Review: A director's Mann-ly 'Insider'

Web posted on:
Friday, November 05, 1999 2:03:44 PM EST

By Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- "The Insider," starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, is one of the most highly anticipated films of the fall. Directed by Michael Mann, this tense drama is based on writer Marie Brenner's 1996 Vanity Fair interpretation ("The Man Who Knew Too Much") of the story of Jeffrey Wigand. He's the former research executive who blew the whistle on what he said were purposeful efforts by the tobacco industry to manipulate its products.


Theatrical preview for "The Insider"

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Paul Clinton reviews "The Insider"
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Wigand's actions made him a key figure in states' efforts to win lawsuits against tobacco companies for costs the states say taxpayers have had to bear in treating tobacco-related illnesses. His story casts such a long shadow, in fact, that a tobacco-trial jury in Florida has been barred by the court from seeing this film, a request granted by the judge in response to a request from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. attorneys.

And as it turns out, this in-your-face drama is the best film to capture the high-flying, rarefied world of a major news organization pursuing a big story since "All The President's Men" in 1976. This time, it's not The Washington Post in pursuit of news. It's CBS News' "60 Minutes." And this film's point of view is that CBS wasn't nearly so heroic as the Post was when faced with tough decisions.

CBS News, for its part, objects to this cinematic treatment. In a statement, CBS writes: "It's important to point out that the producers of the movie 'The Insider' have admitted, in a disclaimer, to adding, for dramatic effect, 'fictionalized events' to its Hollywood version. So it's obvious that the film is not true to the real-life events surrounding the '60 Minutes' tobacco piece that was broadcast on February 4th, 1996."


In 1993, "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman, played here by Pacino, contacted Jeffrey Wigand, played by Crowe. Wigand had recently been fired as head of research and development for the Kentucky-based Brown & Williamson, the country's third biggest tobacco manufacturer after Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds.

Wigand left with concerns about what he says was manipulation of chemicals, including nicotine, in the company's tobacco products. At the time of his employment, he signed a confidentiality agreement with Brown & Williamson, saying he wouldn't reveal inside information.


Smoke and alleged mirrors: 'The Insider' goes public


In the film -- which represents the annual United States death toll from smoking-related illnesses as being in the hundreds of thousands -- Wigand slowly decides that what he has to say is vital to the public interest. The film shows Bergman, in secret meetings with Wigand, shepherding the former executive toward acting on his conscience. The final decision is left up to Wigand.

Ultimately, as "The Insider" tells it, Wigand and his family are the subjects of numerous death threats and he blows the whistle long and hard. The film makes it clear that the origin of the threats was never established.

And Brown & Williamson has issued a statement saying: "As far back as April 1998, we informed Disney and Touchstone Films that Brown & Williamson did not threaten Wigand. Last summer, we sent to them copies of investigative journalism reports that quoted Wigand's wife as stating the threatening messages were 'total fiction.' And now this morning, we have sent copies of the FBI's sworn affidavit to Disney and Touchstone with the expectation that they will cease from falsely and maliciously portraying Brown & Williamson as threatening Wigand."

As the film tells it, shortly before a tobacco segment with a Wigand interview (with Mike Wallace) aired on "60 Minutes," the network's legal counsel -- played here by Gena Gershon -- warned that CBS News might be seen as encouraging Wigand to break his confidentiality agreement with B&W. This could make CBS the target of a lawsuit by Brown & Williamson. And that could influence a potential sale of the network (ultimately to Westinghouse).

In the film, the show's producer Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) and Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) blink under pressure from CBS' corporate eye.


Crowe is one of the best actors of his generation, on a par with Edward Norton (currently seen in "Fight Club"). Crowe is an actor's actor. He seems to become one with his character. You never see him "acting." He gained 45 pounds for this role and speaks in perfect American dialect. He appears to have become Wigand.

Pacino -- who can now be forgiven for blatant overacting in that odorous piece of trash "Devil's Advocate" (1997) -- is at the top of his form. He plays Bergman as a man of deep integrity caught between his loyalty to Wallace and "60 Minutes" and his faith that, in journalism, truth should win out over the nerves of corporate attorneys.

Plummer, in his best role in years, nails the essence of the public persona of Wallace. His elocution, preening demeanor and air of well-earned entitlement are right on. Plummer captures the screenplay's redemption of the character at the end of the film.

Also look for a courtroom scene in which Bruce McGill, playing Ron Motley -- an attorney suing the tobacco companies -- grabs his moment and verbally tears the heart out of an opposing attorney. He's terrifying.



Director Mann, 56, loves telling stories about mano a mano conflict between good guys and bad guys. Check out his 1986 film "Manhunter," the film that introduced Hannibal Lecter to the world five years before "Silence of the Lambs" was released. Or try Mann's 1995 film "Heat," also starring Pacino.

In "The Insider," Mann depicts the tobacco companies as wearing very black hats. Bergman and Wigand wear white. Wallace and Hewitt are seen in varying shades of gray. This film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Dante Spinotti who also worked on "L.A. Confidential" (1997), another exceptional film starring Crowe.

But it's Mann's style that's all over this film. Mann isolates Crowe's character in shot after shot to underline a titanic and lonely struggle with conscience. His use of the brilliant score by Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard (formerly of Dead Can Dance) adds exceptional passion to this film.

This script, written from Brenner's article by Mann and co-writer Eric Roth -- who won an Academy for "Forrest Gump" (1994) -- may take some heavy dramatic license here and there. But the main points are frightening. Actual news footage used in the film shows the heads of major tobacco companies who told a congressional hearing that nicotine is not, in their opinion, addictive. As characterized in this production, Wigand's courage is inspiring.

This is a well-made, strongly acted and intelligent film for intelligent people. Hooray for Hollywood.

"The Insider" opens nationwide on Friday and is rated R with a running time of 157 minutes.

'The Insider' goes public
November 4, 1999
'60 Minutes' says tobacco film twists facts
October 28, 1999
Whistle-blower's inside view of 'The Insider'
October 22, 1999
Tobacco trials' timeline
April 25, 1997

RELATED SITES, in alphabetical order:
Brown & Williamson Web site
CBS News
  •CBS' '60 Minutes'
Official 'The Insider' site
Touchstone Pictures
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