Michael Mann’s follow up to HEAT was critically lauded. Unlike its predecessor, it was recognized by the Academy with seven Oscar nominations. Despite its acclaim, the film did not find an audience at the box office, making only a little over 29 million dollars in 1999.
To a degree, it’s not hard to understand why. The Insider may be a highly entertaining thriller, but a film about the true story of a scientist who blew the whistle on the tobacco industry doesn’t scream blockbuster—even with peak-level Russell Crowe and Al Pacino playing the leads. In fact, much of The Insider is basically middle-aged men standing around talking. The Disney-owned Touchstone Studios admirably put up a $68 million budget, but simply couldn’t figure out how to sell it.
Which is a shame. Because for Michael Mann The Insider is to HEAT what Prince’s Sign O’ The Times is to his Purple Rain. That is to say it is far less loved than the artist’s most recognized work, but that it may be – dare I say it…better.
For a movie shot mostly inside of homes, office buildings, and hotel rooms it is incredibly kinetic. Mann keeps the camera moving constantly, like a predator. He utilizes closeups that are so intimate in scope they seem almost invasive. In doing so, Mann creates palpable tension and stress. There are times when the camera closes in on Crowe when you feel like you are looking at a man trapped in both a literal and figurative box.
The Insider is largely a two-hander between Crowe’s too-dignified-for-his-own-good tobacco industry scientist, Jeffrey Wigand, and Pacino’s hard-charging activist and 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman. Both men are trying to navigate the corporate world while standing ever so slightly outside of it. Both will learn that their belief in their ability to do so is mere illusion when both of their companies choose their bottom lines over integrity and transparency.
You might wonder why a straight shooter like Wigand would go to work for a tobacco company in the first place. They are hardly paragons of corporate decency – producing a product that kills people while swearing that “nicotine is not addictive.” Even in this regard, Wigand is upfront. Explaining to Bergman that he did it for the money and health care benefits, while naievly hoping he could also do some good— there was the matter of his acutely asthmatic daughter and her health care needs to consider. He has reasons for making his deal with the devil and his eyes were open when he made it. But when the science on the addictive nature of cigarettes is made clear, and it’s also clear that tobacco companies are modifying cigarettes to boost the end user’s fix, Wigand can’t hold up his end of the deal any longer.
Bergman has a much longer run with CBS News before his own disillusionment. He left his life as a left-wing journalist to reach more people with bigger stories, and for more than a decade his arrangement with the news division met his personal standards. That is, until news divisions started to be run as profit-centers as opposed to, you know, news divisions. “Infotainment,” they call it. Bergman wants nothing to do with that. He believes 60 Minutes to be the last bastion of hard news, and he’s right…until he isn’t.
Of the two men, Wigand risks more. He loses almost everything over the course of the film: his job, his home, his marriage, and then there are the threats on his life. He takes this risk to expose the tobacco industry because he can’t live with himself if he remains silent. He is compelled to do it. If he doesn’t, he will surrender all that he is as a human being.
Bergman’s only matching concern is his integrity. When he gives his word to a source, he intends for it to be his bond. So, when in a fit of corporate fear, CBS bails on running Wigand’s interview after their subject has risked everything in his life, it is quite simply a bridge too far for Bergman. Even after CBS comes to their senses and finally decides to run the piece with the Wigand interview weeks later, the damage is already done for Bergman—as he tells Mike Wallace (played with tremendous zeal by Christopher Plummer), “what’s been broken here can’t be fixed.”
It’s hard to overstate just how good Crowe and Pacino are here. Crowe was on a magical ten-year run that started with L.A. Confidential and concluded with American Gangster in 2007 (sandwiched in between were The Insider, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Master & Commander, Cinderella Man, and 3:10 To Yuma). Yet, I would contend he was never better than he was as Jeffrey Wigand. It’s a deeply internal performance of a man under enormous pressure, who can see the easy way out before him but his conscience simply won’t let him take it. Crowe transforms himself by graying his hair and adding a few pounds, but it’s the deliberate nature of his speaking cadence that I found most compelling. Rarely speaking above a whisper, he is incredibly economical with his words. He is both sure of what is right and terrified that acting as he must will bring him no benefit, or even harm. Wigand seems an exceedingly difficult man. He is not warm, he is not friendly, but he is courageous in a way few of us could hope to be.
In the case of Al Pacino, I’ve often seen Lowell Bergman as his great lost performance. He doesn’t make himself over physically or change his speech pattern to play the role, because he doesn’t need to. His persona melds so cleanly with what we imagine a “Lowell Bergman type” to be that no affectation is necessary. After finally winning an Oscar for Scent Of A Woman in 1992, Pacino gave several colorful performances—in particular Carlito’s Way, HEAT, Devil’s Advocate, City Hall, and Any Given Sunday—that got him labeled as an over-actor who shouted too much. While I’ve always found that criticism to be reductive, it simply doesn’t apply in The Insider. That’s not to say that Pacino never raises his voice in the film (“…the cat, TOTALLY OUT OF THE BAG!”), it’s just to say that when he does it feels completely in character. I think he might have been a little overshadowed by Crowe’s tremendous (and admittedly subtler) performance and transformation.
This is a film that required a yin and a yang, and I can’t imagine any two actors doing it better. You have to fully believe that these two men would take the harder road even as they are passing easy-off exit ramps. These are men who intend to die with their honor intact.
The Insider feels like the story of the last two honest men on earth. Dinosaurs who survived the ice age only to find themselves surrounded by small creatures who appear to be of another species altogether. While neither comes out unscathed, they do manage to hold onto their integrity. The film argues that maybe that’s enough—if only just.