' ' Cinema Romantico: Forgotten Great Moments in Movie History

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Forgotten Great Moments in Movie History

In Michael Mann’s 1999 masterpiece “The Insider” there comes a crucial moment late in the proceedings when it seems the tide has irrevocably turned against 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) in his efforts to air a segment in which Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) fingers Big Tobacco for knowing that cigarettes are addictive. This is partly because of an article set to detonate in The Wall Street Journal that will tear Wigand’s cred limb from limb. Lowell, however, knows it’s a smear campaign, and so he calls up Charlie Phillips (the late Paul Butler) at the WSJ and asks to get together to hash this out. “Sure,” Charlie says. “Where?” “P.J.’s,” replies Lowell. “I’ll be there,” says Charlie. And while his simply saying he will be there seems to overlook the all-important question of “When?”, well, the absence of that follow-up question beautifully, intrinsically suggests how P.J.’s – that is, P.J. Clarke’s – is simply the epicenter of journalists. When? Whenever. Him, Her, Whoever, Everyone will be there eventually.

That’s true, of course. P.J. Clarke’s was often the epicenter, whether it was Madison Avenue (m)ad men or the “soused sportswriters”, as Michael Weinreb once put it, who voted for college national champions. It’s a world that Michael Mann and Eric Roth, befitting a solid newsperson’s terse prose, succinctly summarized in their “The Insider” screenplay:


CLOSE on Lowell entering, moving through the crowd of sports writers, feature writers, sub-editors, etc. He comes upon a rugged-featured man, JIM COOPER from The New York Times, sitting next to Charlie.

It’s an intro that Mann, naturally, not improbably, captures in the film’s language, where Lowell moves, sure enough, through the crowd, before the crowd half-parts and there are the two men.

And as Lowell moves through the crowd, the sound design is spot-on, ensuring we hear the murmurs of infinite conversations emanating from all angles, where you suspect everyone is dishing on what sort of news everyone else around them is trying to break, an interconnected world evoked in Cooper whispering to Lowell “I hear you guys are sitting on something sensational over there.” Not that everyone knows everything. Because upon getting Charlie alone, Lowell tries to convince him to push the deadline on the WSJ’s Wigand story, decrying it as a mere smear campaign. “If I’m right,” Lowell says, “are you going to put the Journal’s reputation behind a story that’s going to blow up in your face.” “I’ll take a lot at what you got,” says Charlie.

If to many, this room represents The Enemy, purveyors of Fake News, that nebulous catch-all, this scene is here to demonstrate the rigorousness of corroboration and fact-checking that goes into these stories. Still, if “The Insider” was a compelling ode to newsgathering, the news it captured was ultimately compromised by corporate interests, the meaning of veracity becoming twisted for unseemly purposes, foreshadowing a future I failed to consider. And if twenty years ago I regretfully took this scene for granted, now I think of it often, seeing P.J. Clarke’s less as a dark toned nerve center of truth than the remains of a fort from a lost war.

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

Hell yes. Great break down and a great scene from a great film. I love that you and I both still have nothing but acclaim for this film.