movie film review | chris tookey


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  Insider Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
8.60 /10
Lowell Bergman: Al Pacino , Jeffrey Wigand: Russell Crowe , Mike Wallace: Christopher Plummer
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Directed by: Michael Mann
Written by: Eric Roth and Mann . Based on the Vanity Fair article, The Man Who Knew Too Much, by Marie Brenner

Released: 1999
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 160

The Insider is a deliberately ambiguous title. It seems at first to refer to Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a scientist recently fired from a top post within the tobacco company Brown & Williamson. TV producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) becomes increasingly aware that Wigand has inside knowledge that can hurt his previous employers. This is not only that nicotine is addictive - a fact which the presidents of seven tobacco companies denied under oath before Congress - but that the cigarette industry uses additives, at least one of them carcinogenic, to make its products even more addictive. However, Wigand has signed a confidentiality agreement with Brown & Williamson, and has a wife and two daughters to support. Much of the film shows how Bergman - played by Pacino at his fiery best - persuades the troubled, introverted Wigand to break that agreement and go public on the TV show Sixty Minutes.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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So far, so uncomplicated. But Bergman is himself an insider at his television company, CBS. And he, his veteran presenter Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) and boss Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) soon find themselves under pressure from their bosses, via icy corporate lawyer Gina Gershon, to axe the Wigand interview. The corporate high-ups fear a lawsuit which might ruin plans for a CBS sell-off to Westinghouse, and even turn CBS into a subsidiary of Brown & Williamson.

Will insider Bergman betray Wigand or blow the whistle on CBS himself? Well, since the role is being played by a major Hollywood star, what do you think?

This is a stylish, absorbing thriller, all the more powerful for being based closely on real-life events. Unusually for Hollywood movies, it takes on a powerful vested interest - the cigarette industry - and it delivers some very worthwhile warnings about corporate greed.

The Insider came in for some criticism for over-glorifying Bergman. In the latter half of the picture, he is shown instigating a Pulitzer-prizewinning Wall Street Journal investigation into CBS, when in fact he had no connection with it. However, it doesn't portray Bergman as a saint or superhero; and such liberties with the truth are only to be expected, since a drama like this requires one hero, not a collection of them popping up one after another.

The film also blames Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt for decisions which were arguably outside their control. All the same, it shows their moral and professional quandary with great sympathy. Plummer has never been better and was unlucky not to have been nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.

The film is accurate in all the most important respects. And many seeing the film will have some dim recollection of how it all turned out. Wigand's revelations eventually led to a $246 billion settlement of suits brought against the tobacco industry.

However, well-informed you may be on the background, The Insider works brilliantly as a suspense thriller. Even at 137 minutes, there are very few longueurs: it's a terrific piece of story-telling. Director Michael Mann and his masterly cameraman Dante Spinotti (who also lensed Heat and LA Confidential) , create an atmosphere of mounting threat without resorting to many of the normal thriller cliches. They are helped by a marvellous array of performances.

Crowe, chubby-cheeked and virtually unrecognisable from the cop he played in LA Confidential, takes you inside the living nightmare of a very private man with a not particularly salubrious past, who is gambling everything on one throw of the dice, and not sure exactly why. Is it out of public duty, anger at being fired, or resentment at having his family threatened? Crowe suggests all of these and more. He makes you experience just how heavily the system is weighted against anyone who stands up to be counted.

Pacino plays a more straightforward character, intensely motivated by a desire to tell the truth as he sees it. Brilliantly, he makes us share his excitement and frustration as he pursues his big story, only to find it constantly eluding him. But the film doesn't whitewash Bergman's motives either; here is a strutting turkey-cock who manipulates people and doesn't take kindly to those in authority.

Because it tackles these human complexities with conviction, The Insider is a marvellous example of the little-guy-bucking-the-system picture, and can stand comparison with great (but more simplistic) Frank Capra movies such as Mr Smith Goes To Washington.

And no wonder journalists like it. The Insider is an inspiring study of investigative reporting in action - and the best expose of conspiracy since All The President's Men, almost a quarter of a century ago.

The film will be embraced by the Left as an attack on corporate capitalism - Bergman's own left-wing agenda is exposed when he is revealed as an erstwhile student of Herbert Marcuse - but really it is an attack on corporate power when it is used irresponsibly.

And The Insider implicitly asks a question that is as pertinent to Britain, as to America: how democratic can our political system be, when so much of our economic system is oligarchic, secretive and frighteningly unaccountable?

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