THE INSIDER (2000) ****1/2 movie review by COOP

Posted on May 14th, 2008
Posted on May 14th, 2008

Can a film depicting the true-story events of a tobacco industry snitch and the producer of the TV news/magazine, “60 Minutes”, be more exciting than it sounds? Definitely in the case of the “The Insider”, a powerful docudrama adapted from the Vanity Fair article, “The Man Who Knew Too Much”. This film has grabbed up an impressive seven Academy Award nominations, including: “Best Picture”, “Best Actor” Russell Crowe, “Best Director” Michael Mann, “Best Adapted Screenplay”, “Best Cinematography”, “Best Sound”, and “Best Film Editing”.

Academy Award nominee, Russell Crowe portrays real-life scientist Dr. Jeffery Wigand who informed on his former employer, Browning & Williamson, this past decade. The film itself follows Wigand as he is fired, threatened, then terrorized for his professional objection to a new nicotine formula introduced into B&W’s cigarettes. This new formula happens to contain an additive that makes the nicotine more addictive and consequently, poisonous. After alleged threats against him and his family, Wigand confides in “60 minute” producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) who agrees to help protect Wigand in return for an interview with Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer).

The goal… to expose the deadly nicotine conspiracy and to prove that tobacco moguls had perjured themselves when they swore their belief that nicotine is “not addictive” in front of Congress. The problem… Wigand signed a confidentiality clause in his contract with Brown & Williamson, legally forbidding him from disclosing this information to the public. This ultimately results in the CBS brass pulling the interview from the show for fear of a lawsuit that could bankrupt the entire network, leaving Wigand out to dry. Thus Bergman goes on a crusade to keep his promise to Wigand and expose the truth, no matter the consequences.

Pacino pulls off another decent performance as Bergman, but seems to be stuck playing the same kind of character. I would rather see him take more chances with his career rather than playing it safe with the same kind of roles over and over again. Russell Crowe probably won’t win the “Best Actor” Oscar for his role as Wigand, due to the strong showing of contenders in that category. Although the nomination was surely deserved and is a testament to my opinion that Crowe is quickly becoming one of the industry’s most effective actors. Excellent work from most of the cast and the stylish photography makes for one tense and compelling film.

This could have been a real snoozer, but Michael Mann knows how to make a picture. Few saw his 1986 film “Manhunter”, a worthy adaptation of Thomas Harris’ first Hannibal Lecter novel, Red Dragon. Other directing efforts such as “Heat”, and “Last of the Mohicans (1992 version)” showed his adeptness at mixing drama with exciting action sequences. However, “The Insider” is a much more understated effort. Mann should certainly be commended with a “Best Director” Oscar for pulling off something so challenging.

The film ends with a disclaimer, stating that the actual events were fictionally enhanced for dramatic effect. This didn’t seem to stop some from accusing the film of bias and reckless distortion of the truth. Even Mike Wallace himself was publicly incensed for being portrayed as spineless, pompous and arrogant. In truth his character was portrayed favorably, having been redeemed by the end, but nitpicking these faults is not the point of the film. The point is that these truths were told: A man put himself at risk to expose a tremendous lie. Tobacco companies in question are accountable. Investigative journalism can be liable to legalities in which they must make a choice… To be ethical and tell the truth or be safe and sit on it. If all else fails, leak it to another source who will tell the story. Bergman did it and so did Michael Mann in making this film. It’s just another way of telling the story that could not be told under the usual channels, and you know what… It worked.

This is a brilliant movie with substance and moral intrigue. This isn’t just a Hollywood time-passer so do not bring a date unless you’re both looking for something heavy. I wouldn’t bring kids to see it either. Even though minimal profanity resulted in it’s “R” rating, the 148 minute run-time will leave them whining and squirming.

Scale of 1-5:
4 ½

Most refreshing aspect of the movie:
The portrayal of the state of Mississippi. Rather than bringing race into the picture, as Hollywood often does, “The Insider” suggests that Mississippi is a renaissance state. Attorneys Richard Scruggs, Ron Motley and Attorney General Michael Moore were presented as honorable crusaders in the fight against tobacco. Also amusing is the mention that the Governor (Kirk Fordice) is attempting to thwart their noble efforts by slapping Moore with a lawsuit. Beautiful scenes shot in Pascagoula as well.

Biggest gripe:
The lead actress: Wigand’s Kentucky wife (Diane Venora) can’t pull off a southern accent to save her life. We are never intended to like her character, but the bad acting made watching her intolerable. Luckily she doesn’t appear much. Dishonorable mention to: The dimpled-cheeked, Hallie Kate Eisenberg (as one of Wigand’s daughters). Not a good casting choice since she inevitably reminds the audience of those ostentatious Pepsi commercials in which she magically changes her voice. Very distracting.

Biggest surprise: Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, playing HIMSELF in a major motion picture! For a minor role, he sure got a lot of screentime. Another shock… He was actually pretty good. Does this mean an acting career for the swashbuckling lawyer? Probably not but it can’t hurt his political career. Such favorable exposure might aid him should he decides to seek a higher office. Thumbs up to you, Mike for a bold move.

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