' ' Cinema Romantico: Dissecting a Scene from "The Insider"

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Dissecting a Scene from "The Insider"

During this so-far seventh month run of 2016's seemingly portending doom, I have had one movie scene more than any other reverberating around the frightened canyons of my mind. It's from Michael Mann's masterpiece "The Insider" (1999) when 60 Minutes producers Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) and consummate interviewing front man Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) are called into a meeting with the President of their CBS News division, Eric Kluster (Stephen Tobolowsky), and CBS general counsel Helen Caperelli (Gina Gershon). Bergman, Hewitt and Wallace have been putting together an exposé with the ultimate insider, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), ex-employee of Brown & Williamson Tobacco who accused his former bosses of consciously ignoring health considerations

I suppose I've had this scene rattling around my head because 2016's apocalyptic vibes have emanated very much from media concerns, or, should I say, concerns about the media, and how much they did or did not contribute to this apparently unstoppable rise of Bozo the Spray Tanned Clown, and whether the media, broadly speaking, is driven journalistically or commerically. And this scene in "The Insider" finds a powerful media entity suddenly rendered powerless as corporate watchdog because the corporation that gives it space to operate puts its own interests first.

This is how the scene is established, with Bergman (Pacino) and Wallace (Plummer) in cozy, laugh-filled consultation while their executive producer, Hewitt (Hall), sits one chair over. This is a Bergman & Wallace world, see, until.....

Caperelli enters with a cheerful countenance by asking "Should I send for coffee?", the obligatory faux-peace offering in corporate conference room settings before shots are fired. 

She sits, along with Kluster, while Bergman and Wallace disengage, still smiling, still in their own little world, one that's about to get invaded.

Notice how Gershon has Caparelli lean toward Wallace, Bergman and Hewitt, a subtle shift into attack mode. "I thought we'd get together because there's a legal concept that has been getting some new attention recently, 'tortious interference.'"

As she says "tortious interference", Hall has Hewitt snap to attention, like, 'Oh, this doesn't sound good.'

But compare Hewitt's reaction with what Pacino has Bergman do in the face of "tortious interference" - utter disinterest, like, 'Oh, some more corporate bullshit. How grand.' 

"If two people have an agreement, like a confidentiality agreement, and one of them breaks it because they are induced to do so by a third party..." and on third party Gershon has Caparelli point right at Wallace, thinly veiled accusation, telling them if stuff happens, this is their fault. 

After she gives her spiel, Bergman and Wallace take turns explaining that they air something only if it's in the public interest, and only after they verify and corrobrate it, which is why, as Wallace notes, they "have never lost a lawsuit and run a classy show." And Plummer caps his little lecture with an "Anything else?" that is laugh-out-loud haughty.

Ah, but there is so much else, because even if Caperelli agrees that 60 Minutes has exacting verifiaction standards, she thinks it wouldn't hurt to "make sure you're right on this one." 

Hewitt asks Kluster, his boss, what the CBS News position is?

And as the CBS News President goes to answer, he looks first to Caparelli for approval, signaling the hierarchy. 

And Caparelli takes the baton, explaining that they have to check on this claim of tortious interference before they air the piece.

And as she explains this, Plummer has Wallace look at her like her reasons aren't worth the gum on his shoe.

But now Caparelli turns the threats from an outside party to her own, terming the segment "already rife with problems", and opening a binder as she says to visually underscore the supposed rifeness.

Now she has Bergman's attention. "What does that mean?"

"'Rife with?'" Bergman repeats as he leans forward, readying for conference room battle.

She explains that "unusual promises" were made to their client, which Bergman immediately disputes by saying they merely agreed to hold his story until it was ready to air.

She questions Wigand's veracity.

He explains Wigand's veracity was good enough for the state of Mississippi.

She explains that their "standards have to be higher than anyone else's because we are the standard for everyone else." 

"As a standard, I'll hang with, 'Is this guy telling the truth?'"

Gershon's smirk is the wicked rebuttal to the quaint notion of "telling the truth", which she then explicates further. "Well, with tortious interference, the greater the truth, the greater the damage. They own the information he's disclosing. The truer it is, the greater the damage to them. If he lied, he didn't disclose their information. And the damages are smaller."

And this...more than any other, this is the moment I've had rattling around in my head. Confronted with the idea that telling the truth gets you into more trouble than telling lies, Pacino has Bergman pause and look around the room, as if he can't believe here is here and now is now. He asks: "Is this Alice in Wonderland?"

Plummer has Wallace lean forward, quickly, like he's just seized on what he only just realized is the key to the whole case, his interviewing instincts having kicked in. "You said," he says, referring to the earlier statement made by Caperelli, "'on this one.' What about this one?"

She explains that if they air the segment then Brown & Williamson could sue CBS. "At the end of the day, because of your segment, Brown & Williamson could own CBS." And she tops it off not with an expression conveying threat, but this expression, one that communicates a kind of "Aw shucks, if your segment was the reason for all this, gee, wouldn't that suck for your repuations?"

And Pacino has Bergman look not at Caperelli but at Wallace, as if he knows matters of "reputation" are what gnaw at Wallace like nothing else.

Her wristwatch bloops, her scheduled out. "I'm due upstairs," she says.

You can't see it in the still because it's almost imperceptible, but at what is obviously Caperelli's pre-arranged out, Pacino, brilliantly, has Bergman nod, like he's saying 'Of course.' Of course she would flee right at the most delicate moment. That's how they do.

She tells them not to rush to any conclusions because, hey, "We're all CBS."

And as she says "We're all CBS", Mann's handheld camera drifts ever so slightly to the left, to allow space for the CBS "Eye" to enter the frame, as if the "Eye" is watching Caperelli who is watching everyone else.

Then, Caperelli dissolves, as if into a cloud of smoke, like she was never there.

Wallace tells Bergman not to worry, and Plummer gives Pacino a pat on the hand, momentarily reverting to their jocular behavior at the scene's start. "We call the shots around here," Wallace says. 

But Bergman knows that's not true. At least, not anymore, not after today, not from this moment forward. He wins, eventually, of course, he has to, he's the movie's hero, but not really, and he knows it. "You won," his wife tells him later. "Yeah,w hat'd I win?" he asks. It's at this moment, in this frame, regardless of what may come, that Bergman already knows he, and his industry, have lost.

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

Astounding breakdown, my friend. One of my favorite posts ever. Scary how relevant this year has been to that "Alice in Wonderland" quote. And I love love love how you pointed out that final Pacino look. He knows it's all going down. I also love how Caperelli keeps referring to Mike Wallace as "Mike" in this scene, which obviously pays off later in a big way.