Sometime this week, somewhere in America, a kid will be arrested for "possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute." Perhaps this kid will live in a mandatory sentence state, and will end up doing five-to-twenty five for the crime of marijuana possession. Why? Because we have a war on drugs, remember?
Tomorrow morning, my mother will wake up coughing, just as she does every day. She is a five-year lung cancer survivor. She still smokes. And on his way to work tomorrow morning, my husband will stop at a 7-11 and purchase a pack of Marlboro 100's. He knows smoking kills. So does my mother. He can't quit. Neither can she. Why? Because because they are addicted. They are addicted to a product made by companies that donate money to the kind of politicians who decry the dearth of morality in our society; a product when used as directed, kills; a product the main ingredient of which is one of the most addictive substances known to man; a product subsidized by the very tax dollars of the people being held in its killer grip.
Let's begin by summing it all up: Michael Mann's THE INSIDER, is plain and simply the best film I've seen this year. A throwback to that period of 1970's filmmaking, when passionate, then-young actors with names like Hoffman and Pacino and DeNiro were directed by passionate, then-young directors with names like Coppola and Scorsese in passionate films about Important Issues. A righteous indignation permeates THE INSIDER, making it a tight, suspenseful thriller, even though we know how it ends.
Four years ago, former Brown & Williamson tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand was contacted by 60 MINUTES to tell what he knew about the manipulation of nicotine in cigarette manufacturing. Seven chief executive officers of tobacco companies, including B&W, had recently sworn under oath that they did not believe nicotine was addictive. If Wigand was right, all had committed perjury. The film details 60 MINUTES producer Lowell Bergman's superhuman efforts to convince Wigand to go public, to the point of arranging his testimony in a Mississippi lawsuit against the tobacco industry as a way of circumventing his confidentiality agreement. Just before the story was to run, CBS News' attorneys decided that running the piece would constitute "tortious interference" -- and leave CBS open for a lawsuit. That some of said attorneys stood to benefit from a proposed $80/share sale of the company, one which would be jeopardized if B&W decided to sue, as was being threatened, was not immediately apparent.
The film is being promoted as a behind-the-scenes story of the news business, but it is first and foremost Wigand's story; the story of a man who purely by accident does the right thing for reasons he doesn't understand; and who finds his life unraveling as a result. Wigand has always been a peculiarly opaque character; a man of no particular passion or moral outrage, a shlumpy figure in the unlikely role of crusading hero. In the aftermath of the 60 MINUTES story, Wigand became, for a short time, a popular figure on the talk show circuit, and yet we still understood him very little. Russell Crowe, a singularly bland-faced and inscrutable actor, is unrecognizably swollen as the pudgy Wigand, and here his utter blandness works for him, for a characterization that is strangely riveting. As Wigand becomes the target of -- whom? -- it becomes clear to him the strange power he has over his former employers; a power with which he is clearly uncomfortable. When Wigand becomes a teacher after he has lost everything, he truly seems to blossom as he remembers why he became a scientist. "Can you imagine what it's gonna be like for me coming home from work and feeling good at the end of the day?" he asks his reluctant wife.
Al Pacino, an actor who has spent the last twenty years gluttonously dining on the scenery, finally has another role suitable to his voracious intensity. His Lowell Bergman is loud, vulgar, persistent, and utterly convinced of the rightness of what he's doing; regardless of the ratings, and at least initially, heedless of the impact on his source's life. Once Bergman discovers that 60 MINUTES, the jewel in the CBS News crown, is caving in to corporate interests for the sake of the stock price, Pacino is able to deliver some of the best, most impassioned movie rants in recent years. ("Is it true? Yes. Is it news? Yes. Are we going to run it? No.") Watching the moral indignation of this film build made me realize just how long it's been since movies consisted of more than special effects and cheap laughs.
The slow, methodical building of the plot seems at first as if it's going to be the longest two-and-half-hours of your life, yet before long, this familiar story is as riveting as any unpredictable thriller. THE INSIDER has no car chases, no special effects, no morphing, no hit song, no sex -- not even a quickie between Pacino and Debi Mazar's production assistant, despite one or two shots of them making goo-goo eyes at each other. What it does have is crisp camerawork, taut dialogue, and polished, professional starring ad supporting performances. Diane Venora, as Wigand's southern belle wife, is excellent, if unsympathetic, as a woman who apparently married only for better. Philip Baker Hall effectively channels Don Hewitt, Colm Feore is actually touching and sincere as the Mississippi attorney who took on the tobacco industry, and Gina Gershon is chilling as the corporate attorney who can actually say "tortious interference" with a straight face.
Only Christopher Plummer, in the thankless role of Mike Wallace, defies belief. Plummer has become a hyperbole of himself, and plays Wallace as a sort of loud, abrasive, yet foppish man who undoubtedly has tea and crumpets at four. No one short of Wallace could have played this role, and I suppose Plummer does his best, yet it is the only jarring note in an otherwise impecabble cast.
Some scenes are so understated, and yet so powerful, they take your breath away. A faxed conversation between the relentless Bergman and the reluctant Wigand is fraught with tension. When Crowe's Wigand is standing alone on the lawn in front of the home of his attorney Richard Scruggs' house, with a phalanx of police bodyguards keeping a respectful distance, we know that this is a man standing on a precipice, debating whether to throw what remains of his life away. When he says, "F*ck it, let's go to court," we feel right along with him that he has nothing left to lose.This is the kind of impeccably crafted, beautifully edited film that went out of style twenty years ago, and unlike the Atkins diet and disco music, is one stylistic relic of seventies that's been missed.
The tragedy of THE INSIDER, and of Jeffrey Wigand, for all that he professes to be content with the way his life has worked out, is that four years later, the U.S. government is still subsidizing tobacco. New smokers are being recruited daily. Politicians are still voting legislation based on the amount that the tobacco industry is pouring into their coffers. We know the truth...and we don't seem to care.
THE INSIDER official site