As The Insider comes to an end, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) confesses to his longtime colleague and friend, the venerable Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), ‘What got broken here doesn’t go back together.” And this is probably the ethos for most Michael Mann films. Where most stories try to find a new status quo, or return to the old one, Mann is resolutely, defiantly preoccupied with irreversible, unalterable effects of severe causes. Mann takes his characters to points of no return, often in matters of crime and justice–with Thief, Heat, and Collateral being his most overt, and among his most effective works–filtered through a sort of Faustian morality. Men sell their souls for some kind of break, only to be relentlessly confronted with the costs of their choices.
The Insider is assuredly Mann’s most thorough and brutal exploration of his philosophy, as his biopic epic follows the aftermath of a high-ranking executive blowing the whistle on the powerful industry that once employed him. Mann details Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a research head for tobacco giant Brown & Williamson who is let go after refusing to comply with a mandate to continue development of ammonia-rich cigarettes, and his relationship with 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, and the former’s graceless loss of everything in his life. Though adapted from Marie Brenner’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” which ran in Vanity Fair, The Insider deepens Mann’s curiosity of classical morality as a sort of take on The Book of Job by way of Alan J. Pakula, crafted as a stylish, propulsive white collar thriller for the ages.
Jeff Wigand and Lowell Bergman are company men. No matter the cost, no matter how they are treated, they do the work, and keep their mouths shut. Even when Wigand is let go–we later learn for “poor communication skills–” he agrees to uphold the nondisclosure terms of his severance package. When Bergman is given Wigand to talk to by a colleague, to decipher some industry documents, Wigand explicitly explains that anything else would violate his exit agreement with B&W. So, when B&W CEO Thomas Sandefur (a menacing Michael Gambon with one of the worst English-to-Southern-U.S. accents), Wigand is outraged at Sandefur for holding him hostage, and equally irate at Bergman, presuming that Bergman let slip that Wigand could be construed as compromising his remaining financial safety.
Of course, Bergman, a journalist with as much integrity as they come, does not shaft Wigand. Soon, Wigand realizes he’s being watched, eventually being sent death threats. The considerable lifestyle downgrade Wigand’s family endures, the smear campaign that fand the danger his family is in exacerbates the mounting anxieties of his wife Liane (Diane Venora), and the rift between them. Wigand resolves to do an interview for 60 Minutes, preemptively being deposed, and letting the cat out of the bag about the unethical practices of the tobacco industry–which includes serving up his boss and other tobacco CEOs as purgers, after they’ve testified against the addictive properties of nicotine. Wigand burns down his life over and over, all in service of doing the right thing.
And then CBS questions whether or not they ought to run the Wigand interview. This is a conflict that comes late in the film–roughly the last 45 minutes or so–and the focus shifts from Wigand, who largely disappears, to Bergman, as he–a dedicated and decorated producer who never met a promise he couldn’t keep–goes through the same horrible awakening Wigand must have before being let go from B&W. Despite bogus legal claims and bald-faced money-grubbing, Bergman is about to lose the story. And everyone is fairly indifferent to the notion that Wigand has given up everything in order to get the truth out.
And though the finale of The Insider plays like a journalistic heist, the entire film has a clockwork precision that moves the plot along without sacrificing any impact. This is a two-and-a-half hour joint, but Mann uses every minute thoughtfully. Only in The Last of the Mohicans does Mann as effectively tackle soulless institutions who are willing to exploit anyone beneath them, until someone caught in the middle must question them, or when they inevitably topple. What is so clever is how self-reflexive Mann’s and co-writer Eric Roth’s script is in deconstructing the corruption and greed of big tobacco by mirroring B&W with CBS. Ultimately, they have the same bottom line, and both will do anything to put their bank accounts.
And Mann lets us know this from the very beginning, as we meet Bergman, being driven, hooded, to meet Sheikh Falladah. Mann and DP Dante Spinotti take a verite approach, often putting the camera right in or next to a given character’s face. They apply a wide, 2:35 frame, lending an even stronger sense of claustrophobia. Wigand and Bergman are trapped within the confines of their respective corporate overlords. And when we see the reverse. Early on, Wigand goes is at a golf range, and before long, realizes the only other man there is keeping a keen eye on him. The scene ends with the two in the parking lot, and as the stranger is taking off, Wigand takes a club, ready to take them on. But they drive off, and the camera pulls out, From then on, we’re left to wonder if anyone in the foreground can be trusted. That nervous, uncertain quality always keeps the frame alive, and that’s simply in the frame.
Yet, perhaps the film’s greatest asset is one of the great ensembles of any ’90s picture. The supporting cast has blink-and-you’ll-miss appearances from Rip Torn and the aforementioned Michael Gambon, but then, out of nowhere, you get an Oscar-baity blow-up from Bruce McGill–his courtroom outburst is perhaps the biggest, broadest moment in a film full of them, and yet, he sells the outrage–or a semi-automaton legal counselor from Gina Gershon. Christopher Plummer is reliably excellent in whatever he’s in, but may be doing his best work as a dead ringer for the legendary Mike Wallace. Plummer doesn’t just look a lot like Wallace, nor does he simply sound like him or copy his mannerisms. There is a complexity and humanity to Plummer’s Wallace that is at once electrifying, maddening, and oddly moving about what journalism means.
As for the leads, Pacino gives a decidedly reined-in performance. One of Pacino’s self-professed tricks in gauging the intensity of a character depends on how in control they are. The more in control they are, the more reserved he is–how Bergman is played for the majority of the film–and vice versa–how Bergman behaves as realizes that CBS might cave to pressure regarding the potential profit ramifications that airing the Wigand interview may have. Pacino is not doing anything as flashy as Plummer or Crowe, or even McGill for that matter. Yet, because Bergman is such a pro who is so good at his job, and because Pacino leans into the unassuming professionalism and skill of a veteran who has seen everything, he carries the final leg just as the film demands.
But of course, The Insider belongs to Russel Crowe, continuing his ascendance as one of the finest actors of his generation. He inhabits Wigand with a manic energy that unravels as his life does. At the onset, Wigand is a quiet, dutiful scientist who wants to remain as unobtrusive and conflict avoidant as he can. In Wigand’s first meeting with Bergman, he nervously bobs around the shadows of their hotel room, standing as far away from the room servant. By the end of the film, Wigand, his whole life exposed and mis-contextualized, is shouting on a payphone in the midst of a hall streaming with high school students. And the reluctant, scorned martyrdom that unfolds in between both ends is both compelling, and deeply upsetting. One can’t help but feel for Wigand, who is a good man that gets mixed up with the wrong people, who makes difficult, life-shattering decisions for a greater good that may never pay off. Crowe’s scenes could be the entire story, and the film would be a knockout. That Mann not only forces us to confront what doing the right thing really looks like is one thing, but Crowe’s presence is felt, and even amplified, when Mann pulls back the curtain, and lets us know how little he matters to the people for whom he is doing this.
The Insider is a film that, despite being about a very specific moment in modern history, that feels totally relevant. One thinks of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and her willingness to testify before the nation, alleging the attempted rape of then-SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and the toll her appearance before the U.S. Senate had on her. Or even James Comey, whose refusal to take a pledge of loyalty to 45 got him canned. Even today, Big Tobacco is in decline, but only marginally. They’re still a multi-billion-dollar behemoth. One person putting themselves in the way of disaster isn’t enough. Mann is perpetually fixated on men who bite off more than they can chew. And often, they are the cautionary tale. Yet, Jeff Wigand and Lowell Bergman are doing the right things for the right reasons. And they make the truth accessible to the public. But they didn’t have to be the only ones to do so.