' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: The Insider

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My Great Movies: The Insider

It is given to only certain filmmakers to make a masterpiece and with "The Last of the Mohicans" in 1992 Michael Mann did it...with a vengeance. It is given to even fewer filmmakers to make two masterpieces but with "Heat" in 1995 Michael Mann accomplished that feat, too. It is given to only a select few filmmakers, especially in our current cinematic climate, to churn out three masterpieces, let alone churn them out in the same decade, yet in the last year of the 90's Michael Mann went and did it with "The Insider". Forget "All The President's Men", this is the finest film ever made about the journalistic process.

Michael Mann makes action films, though not always in a conventional sense. "It's actions that count," Mann himself has said, "not what motivated you to do them." We judge the two men at the center of "The Insider" on what they do and not always why they do it.

Based on the Vanity Fair article "The Man Who Knew Too Much", "The Insider" tells the true story of so-called whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, "the ultimate insider", a former employee of tobacco company Brown & Williamson, who in 1996 was fired and eventually went on "60 Minutes", with the critical assistance of producer Lowell Bergman, and stated that tobacco companies were aware of the fact nicotine is addictive. Of course, it wasn't this easy. Wigand had signed a confidentiality agreement and, thus, Brown & Williamson fought to block this piece from airing on "60 Minutes", going so far as to threaten a lawsuit that could have resulted in Brown & Williamson owning the CBS network.

Played by Russell Crowe, Wigand's side of the story opens on the day he leaves his job at the tobacco giant. We see him at home with his wife and two daughters, one of whom has asthma, and how we tries to hint at the fact he has been fired before finally blurting it out and then driving away in a rage. Story and character develop simultaneously. Meanwhile, a box of mysterious papers involving tobacco in some capacity show up on the doorstep of Bergman (Al Pacino). Searching for someone who can explain these papers to him he is directed to Wigand.

In a sequence only Michael Mann could render so riveting, the two exchange faxes. Wigand says he can't talk. Bergman persists. Eventually they meet. Wigand says he will translate the papers but that's it. Shortly after Wigand is called to the office his former boss (a suitably slimy Micheal Gambon) at Brown & Williamson who advises they will be drawing up his confidentiality agreement in greater detail. Then they take it a step further. Wigand and his family are harassed and threatened. A bullet turns up in his mailbox. It is here we begin to see this movie's unusual tactics.

Wigand is by no means a valiant matinee idol. He is portrayed as a man of science who willingly took a job with a decidedly unscientific company but his decision to press forward and go after that same company occurs not necessarily for noble reasons and more because they - in short - piss him off. He is hot and short tempered. His buttons are pushed.

A key moment occurs when Wigand is set to testify in a Mississippi court, to present the information he possesses on tobacco and nicotine on public record, in an effort to cut through his confidentiality agreement. He is told that if he goes through with it when he returns to his home in Kentucky he can be found in contempt and sent to jail. "How does one go to jail?" he asks. "What does my family do?" He tells Bergman he can't decide. The exchange that follows is monumental.

Bergman: "Maybe things have changed."
Wigand: "A lot's changed."
Bergman: "You mean since this morning?"
Wigand: "No, I mean since whenver." (Long pause.) "F--- it. Let's go to court."


And they do. No preaching, no stylized speeches reciting truth, justice and the American way, just: "F--- it. Let's go to court." To repeat, "It's actions that count, not what motivated you to do them."

Along with venerable "60 Minutes" reporter Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer, not necessarily looking like the real life Wallace but perfectly capturing his mannerisms) Bergman must find a way to negotiate the confidentiality agreement. He assists Wigand in testifying in the Mississippi lawsuit and when Brown & Williamson launches a smear campaign against Wigand it is Bergman who leads the counter-attack. Meanwhile the tobacco giant threatens CBS with a lawsuit, specifically for "tortious interference", pressuring someone to break his signed agreement, which leads the network to shut the segment down and Bergman to maneuever his way around this dilemma by leaking this story to the New York Times. But was Bergman really involved in all this action?

Actually, no. He wasn't. The Wall Street Journal discredited Brown & Williamson's smear campaign all on its own and the New York Times reported its story all on its own and it was Mississippi lawyer Richard Scruggs (Colm Feore in the film) who most prominently aided Wigand in his court testimony. Was Mann wrong to manipulate both the timeline and some of the facts? I don't think so. The basic, and most vital, information of the film is correct and rather than making "The Insider" a docudrama by focusing on the real life players, Mann makes it much more immediate and involving by presenting two protagonists, boldly switching them midstream. The esteemed Roger Ebert writes of the film: "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." Amen.

Russell Crowe is simply phenomenal as Wigand. It is his finest performance to date and for it he should have won the Oscar (he was nominated but lost to Kevin Spacey for "American Beauty"). He walks haltingly, pigeon-toed, often looking at the ground, his hands and fingers fidget, his lips are constantly drawn back into his face, suggesting a person not comfortable in his own shoes. As for the legendary Pacino we may remember this as his last great performance before the infamous slide. Yes, he screams a lot but consider how the real-life Bergman's operational tactics are described in the Vanity Fair article - as "screaming matches". The supporting players are all solid, particularly Bruce McGill who turns up only for a couple scenes as a Mississippi lawyer but has one show-stopper that I will not describe for what it must be seen to be believed (when it happened in the theater I don't think I breathed for 30 seconds).

These are two men who are not the same but find themselves thrust into the same battle and who keep the faith in one another, often by the thinnest of threads, as other relationships around them are strained and severed. Like all men in Michael Mann films, they are driven. By what? To what degree? How far will they go? How much of what they have built for themselves will they risk? At first glance one may be tempted to label Lowell Bergman a static hero, but look closer. "You're a fanatic," one character shouts at him. "You won't be happy unless you're putting the whole company at risk." Bergman, in the end, might just learn the most painful lesson of all.

There is a moment in the midst of the smear campaign when Bergman discovers personal information that Wigand kept from him. Bergman calls him on the phone and harangues him. Wigand doesn't see what that had to do with his testimony, with his story. The two men yell back and forth and Wigand hollers, defiantly, "I told the truth!" Bergman screams in retaliation, "It's not the point whether you tell the truth or not!" Now Wigand quiets down. The fire vanishes from his eyes. He repeats, but this time meekly, defeated, "I told the truth."

"The Insider" is a two hour masterpiece far less about good triumphing over evil than about the bitter murkiness that forever coats the middle ground of those two ancient forces. Slate's movie critic Dana Stevens once wrote that "In Mann-land, these distinctions — between right and wrong — matter, big-time." Oh, yes, they do. There has never been a director who has made them matter more.

No comments: