WARNING: EXPOSING THE TRUTH MAY BE HAZARDOUS.
I work for a major newspaper in Scandinavia. That means we are a powerful voice in the Swedish media landscape. But just like every other newspaper or network, we are owned by somebody, in this case a Norwegian corporation. The relationship between us and our owners is complicated, as it should be. On the business side, I’m sure no one considers that relationship to be particularly complex; everybody has a boss and you get paid to serve those in charge and do a good job. But a newsroom must be independent to a certain degree; otherwise, it can’t deliver good journalism. The story of The Insider (1999) depicts a conflict familiar to every reporter.
In the mid-1990s, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) is a research and development executive at the Brown & Williamson tobacco company who’s fired after an argument with the CEO (Michael Gambon). Wigand is a doctor of biochemistry initially hired by the company to find safer ways of delivering nicotine to smokers without increasing the harm of other tobacco compounds. Wigand wasn’t terribly successful, constantly clashing with a company that was more interested in making money rather than trying to reduce damage to its customers’ health.
After his firing, Wigand is pressured into signing a confidentiality agreement that forbids him to disclose anything about his work at Brown & Williamson. However, Wigand makes contact with Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a 60 Minutes producer who becomes interested in making a segment about the tobacco industry…
Powerful corporations protecting its interests
This real-life story was chronicled by Marie Brenner in a Vanity Fair article called ”The Man Who Knew Too Much”, and it’s a juicy one. Wigand claimed that he and his family were threatened in several ways after the revelation that he was working with 60 Minutes. No one was ever charged with anything, but the film draws a clear connection to Brown & Williamson (without ever saying so). That’s one piece of an intriguing puzzle.
What’s more important for this drama though is how people get caught in the middle when powerful corporations do everything in their power to protect their interests. We have a tobacco company that’s been hiding its dirty secrets for years and is now making moves against a former employer who might reveal them, and we have a media company that doesn’t want a billion-dollar law suit against them and pressures its flagship institution to do the wrong thing and suppress a news story that’s very much in the public interest. The conflict inside CBS stands between Bergman and his superiors… but it also causes a rift between him and Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), the superstar of 60 Minutes who does not want to ”spend the last years of his career on PBS”.
The primary showdown involves seemingly dry issues like ethics and journalistic principles, but then there’s also the character of Jeffrey Wigand. He’s there to make sure we invest emotionally in the story. He’s not a perfect hero; Crowe plays him as a flawed, ill-tempered person, but that’s why we remain interested in him. We don’t really get as close to Bergman, the other hero of the story, but Pacino delivers such a compelling performance anyway that we instantly sympathize with him.
Michael Mann is famous for tense, smooth thrillers like Heat (1995), which also co-starred Pacino, and he brings that edge to this drama; many scenes take place in the evening or at nighttime, creating an atmosphere rife for both contemplation and confrontation. Mann is an expert at that, and he doesn’t need guns blazing to conjure tension.
The Insider 1999-U.S. 157 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Pieter Jan Brugge, Michael Mann. Directed by Michael Mann. Screenplay: Eric Roth, Michael Mann. Cinematography: Dante Spinotti. Cast: Al Pacino (Lowell Bergman), Russell Crowe (Jeffrey Wigand), Christopher Plummer (Mike Wallace), Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse… Stephen Tobolowsky, Gina Gershon, Michael Gambon, Rip Torn.
Trivia: Val Kilmer was considered for the part of Wigand.
Last word: “[Mike Wallace] would call me, and have these engaging dialogues. They were funny, they were hilarious. And halfway through one of them I said, ‘Mike, do you mind if I record this?’ And he said, ‘Why?’ And I said , ‘Because I want to put this right into the movie.’ ‘Turn on your tape recorder dear boy.’ And I did, and much of what Wallace says in that speech, particularly, ‘How fortunate I am to have to have Lowell Bergman to shine a light on the path of moral rectitude.’ That’s directly a quote from him. So we had a lot of dialogue, I had a lot of dialogue while this was going on, and the film was dead [accurate], it’s not just accurate, it’s authentic. And, a higher standard, and I know it injured Wallace, and I feel bad that it injured him.” (Mann, The Hollywood Reporter)