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USA 1999
Directed by
Michael Mann
157 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Insider

Synopsis: Based on the true story of former tobacco research scientist Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), who in the mid-1990s blew the whistle on American tobacco companies' cynical efforts to get -- and keep -- smokers hooked on nicotine and his relationship with CBS's "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who risked his career to air an interview with Wigand even after the network pulled the plug.

At 157 minutes The Insider is long film that, despite its "fictionalisation" of the real-life events, steadfastly pursues its harrowing story without recourse to comic relief, romantic sub-plots or any other appeasement of the movie-goer's desire to be entertained. Small wonder that it has not performed well at the box-office despite an excellent critical reception, perhaps small consolation for Mann but credit must go to him for his courage in making this film. For unlike Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men, with which it begs comparison, Mann did not have compelling subject matter, a story of Machiavellian intrigue, with massive public interest. Wigand was not a charismatic figure, Big Tobacco was essentially a faceless business cartel, and the story, whilst one of real corporate deception and exploitation, not only lacks glamour but is strangely humdrum in our post-Watergate world in which the revelation of private vice is as banal as breakfast cereal. The script by Mann with Eric Roth does a fine job of taking this often arcanely procedural material and turning it into a thrilling drama.

Whilst most of the critical plaudits for acting have gone to local hero Crowe (and his performance as the reflective, intelligent but nervously repressed Wigand is indeed an achievement) it is Pacino who, together with Mann's fine direction, keeps one hooked, particularly in the second half of the film when Wigand recedes from the narrative. As the weathered ex-radical journalist now working in the world of corporatised media news but still, at least in his own mind, retaining his crediblity, Pacino is virtually typecast (the most obvious precedent here being 1979's ...And Justice For All). But in the deadly dull world of reasonable men (and their compliant women) with which this film deals, his non-conformity provides the warmth and colour and movement which makes the film so watchable and within the logic of the plot, it his continual articulation (admittedly a tad too often) of his values that gives Wigand the desire to break his pragmatic silence.

Mann has a masterly ability to drive a plot filmically. Here he has decided to concentrate on the Crowe and Pacino characters and their relationship, eschewing a descriptive approach to the unfolding of events (although the films jumps from location to location, from East Coast to West Coast from Palestine to the Bahamas, these are always quick cuts and background to the central drama). Quite unlike Pakula who predominantly kept the camera at an observer's "arm's length", Mann here puts it as close as possible to his subjects or uses it to give us the subject’s perspective, with lots of hand-held work and unusual body-oriented viewing points (cinematography is by Dante Spinotti who also lensed Mann's excellent action-thriller Heat,1995, and the not so excellent The Last Of The Mohicans,1992). Once again the effect is to focus on the central characters and push everything else to the background, to the point of heroizing them, an approach which Mann, who worked with Pacino on Heat (along with Diane Verona, who plays Wigand's chronically neurotic wife), uses as a powerful story-telling device. Mention should also be made of the effective original score largely provided by Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke.

Although Mann goes for a triumphal Oliver Stone-ish big finish it is earned by Wigand's sacrifices. The only noticeably weak spot is Michael Gambon's American accent. Although the British actor is suitably chilly as a cynically self-serving CEO surely any of a hundred other actors could have filled his shoes as well.




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