' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Christopher Plummer

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

In Memoriam: Christopher Plummer

Michael Mann’s “The Insider” (1999), which was remarkable upon its release and yet somehow still grows better, deeper, and more resonant with each passing year, was mostly about two real-life men, Brown & Williamson whistleblower Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) who fought to get Wigand’s story on the air, the former sort of passing the narrative baton to the latter midway through the movie. Hovering on the edge of both these stories, however, was famed journalist Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), interviewing Wigand for the story and serving as something akin to Bergman’s consigliere. 

In his performance, Plummer took a cue from the first scene, interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini, where he argues with the Sheikh’s bodyguard to, in his own words, get his heart started. If it suggests an aging man, or deception, what it really foreshadows is this: theatricality. There is an air of performance to everything Plummer does in the part, gliding into a crowded Manhattan restaurant and basking in the glow of everyone who recognizes this prominent reporter, holding his reading glasses in his hand with a conspicuously studied air. Look at the moment when he settles in before a TV in a CBS hallway to watch himself give an interview to the Evening News; there is something he does there with his face, assuming this almost disquisitive expression, as if he is preparing to appraise his own performance. If there is a tendency in playing parts of famous people to sort of play it like you don’t know who you’re playing, like Henry Fonda playing just some chump from Illinois, Plummer goes the other way, playing Mike Wallace as Mike Wallace. That’s why Mann’s original desire to have Mike Wallace play himself would have been all wrong, like Kramer wanting to play Kramer on “Jerry”; Plummer could stand outside Wallace and see him for what he was. 

When Bergman first convenes a council to discuss bringing Wigand’s story to air by having him break his confidentiality agreement, others in the powwow see this as an impossibility. Not Wallace.   

“He’s got a corporate secrecy agreement? Give me a break. This is a public-health issue, like an unsafe airframe on a passenger jet or some company dumping cyanide into the East River. He can talk, we can air it.They’ve got no right to hide behind a corporate agreement. Pass the milk.”

It’s an astonishing moment, Plummer running that pass the milk on there without so much as a beat, as if he goes straight from delivering a monologue on a ledge to pouring a cup of damn coffee in the kitchen. And that’s what Plummer does in the role, somehow exist on two planes at all times. You see it especially in his show-stopping dressing down of Helen Caperelli (Gina Gershon), the face of CBS Corporate, where he masterfully amalgamates the seemingly incompatible notions of vanity and journalistic integrity, rendering a human being while still standing there and looking larger than life. More than most movie (more than any movies?), “The Insider” shows how our flaws and warts and selfish desires do not necessarily preclude us from knowing the difference between right and wrong. In his performance, Plummer lived it. 

Christopher Plummer died on Friday. He was 91.

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