Touchstone Pictures // 1999 // 158 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // April 26th, 2000
I'm telling the truth!!!
The Insider is the compelling story of corporate greed and perhaps the biggest health related news story of the last century.
At its center is Dr. Jeffery Wigand. A recent employee of Brown and Williamson tobacco company, Dr. Wigand was fired because the company felt he failed in his research to develop a "safer" cigarette and because he would not go along with what he thought were serious health concerns. Because of the sensitive nature of his work, Dr. Wigand, like almost all employees, was forced to sign a confidentiality agreement with the company. It is his maintaining this agreement that keeps him with his severance package and much needed health insurance. Enter "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman. Bergman wants Wigand to make sense of some documents about another cigarette company. Wigand agrees to this but refuses to violate his agreement with Brown and Williamson. Sensing that Wigand has an important story to tell, Bergman starts to draw him out.
Brown and Williamson have become aware of Wigand's relationship with Bergman and begin applying serious pressure on their former employee. Pressure which includes scare tactics against Wigand and the family he holds so dear. Pushed too far and feeling that enough is enough, Wigand finally decides he wants to tape an interview.
Behind the scenes, Bergman is trying to find a way around Wigand's agreement with the tobacco company. Eventually Bergman puts Wigand in contact with Richard Scruggs. Scruggs is an assistant to Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore and together they are attempting a landmark lawsuit against the major tobacco producers, a lawsuit that would make the cigarette companies liable for medical expenses in the cases of people who have become ill because of their addiction. To them Wigand is a godsend.
Thinking this has opened the door for CBS to broadcast an interview they have conducted with Wigand, the film gets it's second act conflict. The implied lawsuit against CBS for airing the interview that could cost billions. This is around the time of CBS's sale to Westinghouse and the powers that be think even a whiff of a lawsuit would scrap the deal. Pressure is applied and the film shows "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) caving in. Looking for backup Bergman turns to Mike Wallace who, much to his shock, sides with the network. It is at this point that Bergman realizes he and Wigand are left alone.
Brown and Williamson have begun their smear campaign against Wigand, who is now teaching high school chemistry. His wife has left him and CBS has refused to air the piece, denying him his moment of truth. On top of that Brown and Williamson has leaked the false news to various news sources. With The Wall Street Journal about to run a story detailing the allegations against Wigand, Bergman begins his own covert operation to bring the truth to the surface. Leaking information and calling in favors Bergman manages to shake Wallace, the lion of journalism, to take up the cause once again. With the public eye squarely on CBS, the network relents and airs the entire piece.
If you have followed the news the past few years, you know the results.
The Insider was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Russell Crowe. For once I think the Academy was dead on. I think that of the films nominated, American Beauty was the year's best but The Insider was right up there.
Director Michael Mann (Heat, Last of the Mohicans, Manhunter) has directed this drama as if it were an action movie and it was the right approach. At 158 minutes the film could be considered long, but with a quick style of editing, extreme close-ups and a throbbing soundtrack the film never once feels long or drawn out. It has it's own internal rhythm and it moves quickly.
Many comparisons have been made between The Insider and All The President's Men and I understand what they are getting at. Both feature journalists trying to get at the truth, while fighting powers greater than themselves. Both are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances but in the end I find that The Insider resonates with a greater degree of force. For all it's strengths, All the President's Men was a rather sterile and dispassionate tale about powerful men who turned out to be nothing more than a bunch of common thugs. The Insider is nothing if not passionate and with it's set of bad guys, it has larger fish to fry. It wears it's moral outrage on it's sleeve and it's not afraid to wag it's finger at the audience. Corporate greed and the willful, knowing addiction of a large section of the populus makes for drama that affects us all one way or another.
The Insider boasts stunning work from it's entire cast. Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential, Virtuosity, Gladiator) is an absolute revelation as Wigand. He conveys a sharp intelligence and deep rooted sense of integrity. It is obvious that blowing the whistle is the hardest moral decision he has ever had to make and he is aware of it's consequences. Wigand is a flawed man and it's to Crowe's credit that he does shy aware from those flaws. They help to flesh out as Wigand a complete person and only serve to highlight his form of heroics.
The biggest sense of dread I had when approaching The Insider was knowing that Al Pacino (The Godfather, Sea of Love, And Justice for All) was one of the leads. Pacino is a wonderful actor but it seems like he has been riding the angry, finger pointing school of acting for decades now. Not to worry. Director Mann reins him in for most of the film so that when he does get to raise his voice in anger and shock, it actually means something. His more extroverted nature balances Crowe's quiet sense of determination nicely. It is some of Pacino's strongest work in years.
Playing the most recognizable face in the movie, Christopher Plummer (Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country, Wolf, The Sound of Music) does wonders as "60 Minutes" stalwart Mike Wallace. Plummer empowers Wallace with the moral gravity of a man who has been in the spotlight for years and who truly believes his words to be gospel. Vain, gruff, soothing and smart enough to know when he is wrong, Plummer nails down Wallace as the old lion in winter.
Strong supporting work is also turned in by Philip Baker Hall (Boogie Nights, Hard Eight, Magnolia) and Diane Venora (Heat) in the rather thankless role of Wigand's wife, Liane.
On the technical side, Disney's anamorphic transfer does wonders by Dante Spinotti's haunting and moody cinematography. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 the image is nothing short of reference quality. The picture is sharp and highly detailed with no signs of over enhancement. The film uses a great deal of blacks and shadows and they come through solid with no bleed or shimmer whatsoever. The print itself is in pristine condition with zero defects.
While not a special effect driven laser-fest The Insider's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also outstanding. Dialogue is easily and clearly made out with the surrounds used for more ambient background noise than anything else. Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke's score comes through very well and provides the film with another weapon in it's arsenal. Like the film itself, the sound is quiet and effective, raising it's voice only when it needs to.
The main feature of the disc is a production featurette that features all of the main players, including the real Wigand and Bergman. For what it is, it's not bad. It is just too short. It is to the film's credit that after sitting there for almost three hours I wanted to know more. There is also a feature called "Inside a Scene" that shows notes from Michael Mann to Pacino and Crowe about how a scene should be played. From that point you are taken directly to that part of the film. It's a pretty cool idea and something I look forward to seeing more of.
All that plus the theatrical trailer, French language audio track and English subtitles. Slim pickings to be sure.
It should be said that the film does play fast and loose with some of the facts. According to various reporting, Hewitt was not so much a corporate lackey as a victim of pressures beyond his control. It has also been written that Wallace fought much harder in the beginning than the film would have you believe. In its broad strokes, The Insider is accurate but for dramatic purposes some things were obviously changed. As Roger Ebert has said in the past, movies are not the first place to look for facts, and I subscribe to that train of thought.
One constant source of irritation is the way Disney tries to force feed us extra trailers. While it is easy enough to skip past them they should be an option that we choose from on the main menu, where they can be found anyway if we want to watch them again! Please, one or the other but not both.
While the "Inside a Scene" is a nice feature, it did not go far enough. Additional supplemental material would have been a major plus. We at the Verdict would always like to have a something along the lines of a commentary track included; with a film like The Insider it would almost seem to be a must. If Mr. Mann did not wish to record one, a track with either of the main actors or with Mr. Wigand himself would have been a major plus.
Missing or deleted footage would have been a good thing to see as well. According to the IMDb, overseas cuts of the film ran some ten minutes longer. What is that footage and why don't we get to see it?
The Insider is a great film, pure and simple. It is one of those films that haunts the memory long after it has been watched. It makes you angry and concerned. It also shows that there are indeed heroes left in the world, doing what is right, no matter what the cost.
As a film I give it the highest possible recommendation and as a DVD release, outside of the lack of additional content, it should have a place of pride on any serious film collector's shelf.
All involved with The Insider are acquitted of all charges. Disney is thanked by the court for the wonderful video and sound but asked to put more effort into the extras. Music of the Heart gets a two disc set for crying out loud, shouldn't one of the best films of the year get the same kind of treatment?
I would also like to make a ruling against Brown and Williamson but I suppose a $246 billion settlement will have to do for now. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2000 Harold Gervais; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 158 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer
* Production Featurette Featuring Interviews with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe
* Inside a Scene
* Smoke In the Eye: A Frontline Documentary
* Official Jeffrey Wigand Site