The impact of a challenging story boldly tackled is diminished by serious overlength and an overriding air of self-importance in “The Insider.” This detailed analysis of the ferocious power, implacable arrogance and ultimate vulnerability of corporate America can only be respected for the fearless determination with which it pulls the curtain back on the shameless chicanery of giant profit- and image-minded companies. But director and co-writer Michael Mann has succumbed to the idea that such a big subject needs “big” treatment, resulting in a borderline pretentious, overly inflated picture. Topical subject matter, Russell Crowe’s outstanding performance and plenty of grist for off-showbiz-page media coverage should give Disney more than enough fuel to launch this prestige release to good, if limited, B.O. results, which could conceivably be boosted by critical plaudits and connection to the zeitgeist in the wake of its Nov. 6 release.
The story of the unheroic scientific researcher who exposed the tobacco companies’ official lies about the unhealthful nature of its product, leading to legal decisions that, for the first time, began going against firms in “the nicotine delivery business,” was a fairly unlikely one for an expensive major studio feature, and might have found its ideal form as the sort of tight, no-flab corporate thriller at which HBO has come to excel.
History has provided Mann with the opportunity for a dual investigation of corporate duplicity, courtesy of CBS’ initial decision not to air its explosive “60 Minutes” interview with the whistle-blower, which caused deep wounds that the picture will no doubt reopen. The interwoven structure generates tension and creates a larger portrait of the way big business works and relates to those in its “family.”
But the downside to this approach is a measure of sprawl and sag that continually retards the sought-after narrative charge and sense of accumulating anxiety.
In a prologue that provides a taste of the power of “60 Minutes” and some pure movie razzle-dazzle, show producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) gutsily sets up an interview in Iran with an alleged Islamic terrorist that is ultimately conducted by Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer). Colorful and amusing episode is intercut with the firing of Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe) from his position as head of research and development at Brown & Williamson, the third-largest U.S. tobacco company.
A devoted family man who must sign a confidentiality agreement in order to receive a settlement and continued benefits, the unprepossessing Wigand initially resists Bergman’s request to help him decipher some tobacco-related documents. But Wigand has a strong stubborn streak and a sense of what’s right that springs out of him at unexpected moments; despite his need to support his wife (Diane Venora) and two school-age daughters, he initially tells his former boss (Michael Gambon, marvelously malevolent) to shove it when asked to agree to an expanded confidentiality pact, only to backtrack later on.
But by then the cat’s out of the bag, and Bergman, a scarcely reformed radical and Ramparts journalist, keeps after the man he knows can blow the lid off the deceptions of “the seven dwarfs,” the heads of the seven major tobacco companies who, with their most sincere poker faces, have denied to a congressional committee that smoking poses any health risks.
Mann and co-scenarist Eric Roth proceed to describe every movement of every gear in the process that leads Wigand to spill the beans: his taking of a teaching job and move to a smaller house; his preliminary “60 Minutes” interview, in which he directly accuses the tobacco companies of lying; his agreement to the legal ploy of giving a deposition in a Mississippi tobacco case, thereby freeing him of the constraints of his confidentiality agreement; the posting of security men in his house in the wake of death threats; and his abandonment by his wife, who simply can’t take the pressure anymore.
Although the relationship between Wigand, by nature a private man with a tendency to internalize things, and Bergman, a demonstrative New Yorker who thrives on confrontation, is often testy and on the verge of unraveling, Wigand takes the enormous risks he does with the full confidence that Bergman — and, by implication, “60 Minutes” — will be there to back him up and make it all worthwhile in the end. That this confidence is misplaced represents the story’s biggest shock, one that naturally devastates Wigand but ultimately has a more profound impact on Bergman and the reputation of the most respected show on U.S. television.
Just as Bergman is pulling together his bombshell broadcast, CBS corporate reps (personified by Gina Gershon) quash it due to a legal technicality (one that Bergman suspects is a cover for the threat the controversial segment may pose to a sale of the web to Westinghouse). Bergman naturally assumes that he will have Mike Wallace’s support in this battle, but when the crusty old pro concedes to the preparation of a watered-down version of the story, the darkest hour arrives for Wigand, the witness who has been betrayed, and Bergman, the righteous crusader who has been hung out to dry.
But, of course, it doesn’t end there. In the wake of CBS’ cop-out, Bergman must battle against a smear campaign launched against Wigand, who goes into a suicidal funk in a hotel room from which he can peer directly into his former employer’s offices. As the yarn unravels further, Wallace realizes his mistake and goes back on the air with the full story. All the same, the extensive damage prompts the disenchanted Bergman to lament, “What got broken here doesn’t go back together again.”
Despite the always interesting behind-the-scenes look at the legwork and politics necessary to produce “60 Minutes,” the heart of the story here is Wigand, and it is upon him that the film should have more squarely concentrated. A man of integrity who can nonetheless be unreliable and short-tempered, a thick-bodied fellow who moves with a strangely contradictory quick waddle, a nondescript member of the middle class with particular gifts (he’s a brilliant scientist and is fluent in Japanese), Wigand snugly fits the description of an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
Refusing to make him dashing or attractive in any conventional movie way, Crowe, topped off with thinning and lightened hair and sporting glasses that he habitually pushes up to the bridge of his nose with his middle finger, makes him a fascinating and unpredictable enigma, a figure of complicated motives.
Pacino invests Bergman with boundless energy and passion for his job, but it’s a one-note character for whom the audience needs no further layering. Bergman spends most of his screen time badgering, cajoling and shouting, much of it over the phone, and it’s easy to imagine the film scoring nearly all its points with Bergman as a supporting character, not as a star part; little is gained by seeing him with his wife (Lindsay Crouse) or so relentlessly pursuing dramatically secondary issues.
On the other hand, the benefits of less-is-more are readily seen in the case of Plummer’s Wallace. In his handful of judiciously chosen and sharply written scenes, Plummer delivers enormous satisfaction in an authoritative portrait of the celebrated newsman who is gruff, shrewd, arrogant when he needs to be and always extremely smart — except for one crucial moment.
A host of talented thesps contributes vivid portraits for a large gallery of supporting parts.
Mann extended his superb last feature, “Heat,” to the outer limits and got away with it, but it’s not the same here; at 157 minutes, pic feels at least 20 minutes too long. As high-powered and inventive as the direction is, “The Insider,” much of which is confined to offices, homes and hotels, simply doesn’t provide much potential for the sort of physical cinema that allows Mann to flex his muscles. Any number of sequences are over-elaborated in an attempt to pump them up visually, which has the cumulative effect of attaching unnecessary weight to a story that is already sufficiently interesting.
Despite the limited scenic opportunities of Middle America and the mundane interiors, pic has the customary flair associated with Mann and lenser Dante Spinotti. Musical choices, which include numerous exotic, foreign-sounding themes, are odd, with some working and others not.