' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...The Insider

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Some Drivel On...The Insider

When the research scientist giving 1999’s stone cold masterpiece “The Insider” its title, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), is laid off from his job at tobacco giant Brown & Williamson, director Michael Mann recounts this moment not explicitly through dialogue – “You’re fired”, or some such – but by a series of simple cuts. As Wigand boxes up items in his office, we see, through the reflective tint of his glasses, co-workers, or ex-co-workers, in white lab coats mingling with cake outside his office window. Mann then switches to a reverse shot of Wigand seen through his office window so we can hear the low din of the people mingling, that noise deliberately playing off the eerie silence of Wigand’s office. This moment speaks not only to whatever Wigand’s vaguely defined role was – “the work I was supposed to do might have had some positive effect,” he says later – but to his emergent role as a whistleblower, and the lonely road he will trod in calling out his Brown & Williamson cohorts for peddling a deliberately addictive product. These people out here, by shutting up and going along, they get to have their cake and eat it too; this guy in here, he gets told to box up his shit and hit the road.

I’d be lying if I said “The Insider” wasn’t on my mind because of the whistleblower currently in the news, but then “The Insider” has been on my mind a lot in the last 3 years, it and its scintillating exploration of the truth, and all that the truth entails, less Black & White than Bitter & Murky, embodied in that phone call Wigand fields from Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), the 60 Minutes producer who has gone to great lengths to amplify his whistleblowing through a TV segment where Wigand will confirm that 1.) The Brown & Williamson CEO lied under oath when he said nicotine was not addictive because 2.) Nicotine is absolutely manufactured to be addictive. With Bergman questioning details of Wigand’s past being fed to the press by Brown & Williamson as part of a deflective smear campaign, Wigand defiantly intones: “I told the truth.” Bergman explodes: “That’s not the fucking point, whether you told the truth or not!” And when Wigand repeats “I told the truth”, Crowe lets all the defiance out, a variation in line reading evoking how The Truth can look different refracted through a different light, not simply “the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality”, per Merriam-Webster, but something, improbably, depressingly, more malleable.

Crowe carries that truth with him in his performance, a nigh permanent tight-lipped expression embodying the facts he can choose to emit and a kind of hunched-over walk evoking the burden on his back. This burden is brought home in the sequence where, through Bergman’s finagling, Wigand goes to Mississippi to testify in a lawsuit against Big Tobacco to put what he knows on the public record to wrestle free of his confidentiality agreement. He is told, though, by one of the Mississippi attornies, Scruggs (Colm Feore), about a B&W gag order in the state of Kentucky, meaning that despite being free to testify here, back home he can be found in contempt and put in jail. “How does one go to jail?” Wigand asks, reciting his litany of family responsibilities. The ensuing scene, in which he debates what to do, only looms larger in my mind with each passing year, a masterwork of acting, editing, composition, and narrative, leaving out so much and still saying everything.

Outside Scruggs’s home, overlooking the Gulf, we see Bergman, on the left, and Wigand, on the right, from behind, the former telling the latter he heard about the gag order.

“I don’t know what to do,” Wigand says to Bergman.

And then Wigand walks off, away from Bergman, pointedly alone, underscoring The Whistleblower’s place in the world.

Then, Mann cuts away from the Gulf and outside the courtroom where the car carrying one of Wigand’s other attornies, Ron Motley (Bruce McGill), pulls to a stop.

Motely gets out-

A walk that Mann tracks with in this shot, McGill’s head-up, full-speed-ahead walk juxtaposed against Wigand’s more mournful gait.

And then Motely disappears into the press scrum.

Mann cuts back to Wigand, the gently lapping waves a pointed contrast to the cacophony of the media hollering at Motley while simultaneously reminding us that everything that may or may not happen in that courtroom hinges on what his decision.

Indeed, in the very next shot we return to the courtroom as Motley enters.

And as he does, the attorney for Big Tobacco looks up, as does everyone behind him, including the attorney for the Brown & Williamson CEO, the one guy standing up, played by Gary Sandy, who, in just a couple scenes, gives a great performance of smug dickitude, which you can see in his expression here, an impeccable “Well I’ll be, this motherfucker showed” cocky grin.

And the lead attorney leans toward a colleague to ask him to ask Motley if his client – that is, Wigand – plans to show too, illuminating the tension.

Back to the Wigand, seen from afar, trudging in that hunched-over walk, still lost in thought.

He returns to Bergman, now joined by Scruggs.

“I can’t seem to find the criteria to decide,” he says to Bergman. “It’s too big a decision to make without being resolved in my own mind.”

“Maybe things have changed,” Bergman offers.

And then Wigand turns back around-

-leading directly to the most transcendent of all Michael Mann motifs, staring into the distance, which might bear all the meaning in the world or merely be a beautiful void where no meaning resides at all. 

And then he turns back around, lingering for a moment on the police presence, as if ruminating on his present place in the world.

Wigand says: “What’s changed?”

“You mean since this morning?” Bergman asks.

“No,” Wigand says, “I mean since whenever.”

And though you can’t see in the screenshot (it is, after all, a motion picture), Pacino has Bergman quietly fall back in his posture, like he’s been blown back by the weight of these words.

And then Mann cuts back to Wigand, but from the side rather than over-the-shoulder, emphasizing that this moment, this decision, is his. He says: “Fuck it. Let’s go to court.”

And this...well, this might as well be me. Because that’s how I feel every time I think of this moment, like I can hardly believe it. That’s “What’s Changed?” does so much work here, suggesting that the context, personal or otherwise, stands entirely apart from the simple fact of the matter. Would that it were so simple. Rewatching it this week brought me to a few tears.

In another movie, that would be the end, or the beginning of the end. Wigand would go to court and McGill as Motley would give that breathtaking soliloquy shutting the Tobacco goobahs down, and Wigand would give his truthful testimony – “It produces a physiological response, which meets the definition of a drug” – and he and Bergman would enjoy triumphant cocktails. But that’s not the end. That’s hardly the start. If Wigand has told the truth, and if we are practically raised from birth to believe that so long as you tell the truth everything will be set right, well, to quote Christopher Plummer’s version of 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace, “Get in the real world.” The notion of the truth as something less than fixed is evinced by Gina Gershon’s CBS lawyer, a scene I’ve broken down in depth, where she explains Wigand’s veracity is, in fact, an issue, not an elixir, constrained by his factualness, a moment as comical as it is sad as it is WTF. And so CBS Corporate is constrained by Brown & Williamson, and CBS News is constrained by CBS Corporate, capitalism v journalism, the most ancient American grudge match, transforming the back half of “The Insider” into a journalistic thriller. Not one in which Bergman tries to get the truth, obviously, a la “All the President’s Men”, because he already has it, plain as day, but tries but tries to get the truth out to the people, which proves even more difficult.

Spoiler Alert: he does get the truth out, leaking Wigand’s Mississippi deposition to the press, putting the truth in print, spurring the process to where 60 Minutes can, finally unconstrained, air their Wigand story in full. You see Bergman watching this piece air from an airport bar, though Pacino emits an air not of elation but exhaustion from having moved such figurative mountains simply so that everyone surrounding him in the shot also turned toward the TV can hear Wigand blow the whistle. This suggests victory, echoed in Bergman’s wife (Lindsay Crouse) telling him “You won”, though the tone Mann ultimately strikes is more dirge-like, both in the accompanying Lisa Gerrard/Pieter Bourke score to Bergman responding, “Yeah? What’d I win?” In the following scene, when he steps down from 60 Minutes, Bergman tells Mike Wallace, revealingly, “What got broken here doesn’t go back together again.”

Mann is not belittling what Wigand has done, mind you, but rather holding it up as a last stand, the final gasp of an ideal. “The Insider”, I realize more and more with each passing year, is an elegy for the truth.

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