The last time Al Pacino and director Michael Mann paired up, they made the Los Angeles crime saga Heat. It was easily one of the best films of the decade. (That’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot without genuine meaning, but in this case, it’s true). The duo is together again for The Insider (Touchstone Pictures), a film focusing on one of the nation’s biggest health scandals.
The insider is Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe, L.A. Confidential), the central witness in the lawsuits filed by all 50 states against the tobacco industry. The suits eventually were settled for $246 billion. Pacino plays Lowell Bergman, investigative reporter and producer of the Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer, Twelve Monkeys) segments on 60 Minutes. The film details the attempts to air the interview Wallace conducted with Wigand.
The acting, script that is written by Mann and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), direction and cinematography in this film are of the highest caliber. The Insider presents adults confronted with a conflict that is discussed in adult terms. The entire plot stems from this conflict, and the purpose of the movie is its resolution – nothing more, nothing less.
The film is a throwback to the classic idea of the American drama before the multimillion-dollar blockbuster came along. The Insider deals with issues that interrupt the flow of daily life. There are no alien invasions, crashing asteroids or explosions.
Crowe and Pacino give extraordinary performances. Crowe definitely is a pleasant surprise. Typecast because of his body type, he is usually restricted to the dull-bruiser roles in films. In The Insider an added 20 pounds and wonderful performance complete the transformation of Crowe into his character. Crowe plays Wigand as if the man’s personality is a smoldering fire, ready to burst into flames at any instant. With his huge hands, barrel chest and thick neck, the capacity to comfort his daughter acts as a thin veneer over what this man is truly capable of. Wigand’s personality matches his physical appearance. He is a man who only will be pushed around so long. And he has the mental determination, inside knowledge and bravery to sink big tobacco.
Crowe sinks into this role with the relish of a man that has wanted a real character like this for a long time. In every one of Wigand’s stares into space, in each of his tight-lipped tirades of obscenities, in all of his forced smiles to make his daughter think everything’s OK, Crowe conveys the agony that Wigand felt. Should he blow the whistle on big tobacco and inform countless Americans of what has been purposely kept from them, or should he remain quiet and choose the safe path for his family and himself?
At this point, Pacino, in his typically fashion, comes in. Pacino convinces the audience that Bergman dismisses Wigand’s thoughts that he is just a commodity to the producer. Bergman slowly draws Wigand out of his protective shell. He knows Wigand wants to talk. Bergman believes that it is Wigand’s duty to talk, and Pacino makes viewers believe it too. Also, Pacino and Crowe have a wonderful camaraderie when they interact with each other in the film, making the entire situation believable.
The Insider is the first film since The People vs. Larry Flynt that holds up the ideals of the First Amendment. The film portrays the job of journalists as one with morals and ethics. Journalists are not there merely to sell a product.
The Insider deals with contemporary real people who will see their fictional depictions. Plummer has a tough job in his portrayal of Wallace. Few people are on the news today who have the credibility of Wallace. Of course, questions about the accuracy and truth of the story surround film.
The only thing that keeps The Insider from perfection is its length. At two hours and 38 minutes, a tighter editing would have bolstered the film. Despite the length, The Insider combines memorable performances with an engaging story to grip the audience.
This article appeared in the November 4, 1999 issue of the Hatchet.