Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal
“In ‘The Insider,’ I had violence – lethal, life-taking aggression – all happening psychologically, all with people talking to other people.”
– Michael Mann
It’s easy to think of Michael Mann as an action filmmaker. When I hear the director’s name, my mind immediately goes to the all-timer of a street shootout from Heat, with Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer raining hellfire on outmatched police squads. From iconic shots like Kilmer flawlessly reloading his Colt 733 rifle in that film or Tom Cruise quick-drawing on two alleyway thugs with lightning speed in Collateral, Mann has earned a reputation for training his actors to represent tactical precision in their weapons handling. As exciting and visceral as his action movies can be, his most engrossing work for my money is The Insider, a docudrama where no guns are fired or even shown in its 158 minute runtime.
Based on a true story, the film begins with a shroud over the camera and the proverbial wool pulled over our eyes. The face covering belongs to CBS producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who’s being harshly transported to the founder of Hezbollah, Sheikh Fadlallah, in the back of a Middle Eastern van. He hopes to convince the Sheikh to sit down with Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) for a 60 Minutes interview that may change the way American minds view the burgeoning Islamist movement. It’s not an easy task but it’s obvious from the outset that Bergman doesn’t mind the challenge of a potential new story, as long as he feels the work is meaningful and can change the world around him.
It’s this tenacity that draws Bergman closer to Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a tobacco executive who staunchly refuses to consult with Bergman on scientific documents from cigarette conglomerate Philip Morris. After pressing Wigand, Bergman discovers that he’s bound by a confidentiality agreement that seems immensely restrictive in its scope and vicious in its potential repercussions. Bergman spends a large portion of the film working through numerous loopholes that allow Wigand to break through the robust non-disclosure and eventually gets him to sit down for the 60 Minutes interview. It’s only after taping it that Bergman learns the higher-ups at CBS plan on airing a highly abridged version of the segment for fear of litigation from Big Tobacco.
Around the halfway mark, The Insider slyly expands from a film about the intense lobbying power of the tobacco industry specifically to a movie about the sweeping influence of media conglomeration on how information is distributed. Adapting from the incendiary Variety Fair article “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, Mann and legendary screenwriter Eric Roth poured an incredible amount of detail and journalistic rigor into their Oscar-nominated script. Beyond just being well-researched and steeped in hard-hitting truth, it’s a screenplay packed with loaded dialogue and quotable lines that read well but play even better when coming out of the mouths of high-caliber actors.
Mann’s previous film Heat famously paired De Niro with Pacino as the crime and justice sides of the same coin, so much so that it’s difficult to determine who between the two is the protagonist. The Insider similarly brings Pacino back for a character who certainly isn’t the antagonist but also goes about things very differently from Wigand, the film’s underdog hero. We’re used to seeing Crowe as an imposing figure — he would star in Gladiator 7 months after The Insider‘s release — but before his days of schooling strangers on the value of the courtesy tap, Crowe shined in smoldering roles like this that kept his rage simmering under the surface. At the beginning of a tense meeting, Wigand’s ex-employer faux-dotes on him in front of higher-ups by remarking “it’s spooky how much he can concentrate” and Crowe does an incredible job of capturing Wigand’s fiery intellect.
Conversely, Pacino externalizes all of Crowe’s fear and paranoia by lashing out on executives over pay phones and new-fangled mobile phones but really, is there an actor in the 90s that we collectively trusted to do bigger better than Pacino? Equally at home in an authoritative role is Plummer as revered journalist Mike Wallace, who steals nearly every scene that he’s in with his impossibly smooth confidence. After a confrontational meeting with a member of CBS’ legal team, Wallace reassures Bergman with a quick tap on hand and cooly reminds him, “don’t worry; we call the shots around here.” The presence of character actors from Philip Baker Hall to Stephen Tobolowsky further drives home the notion that indeed, we’re in good hands here.
Watching the movie 20 years after its release, the most “dated” aspect of the film is how much concern is given towards a 60 Minutes report but really, that says more about how poor the state of investigative journalism is now rather than the actual narrative seeming antiquated. It’s a time capsule of a quaint era when journalists worked hard to present matters of public interest in the most objective terms possible and the American people trusted the news to keep them informed. Now, hard-hitting exposes are typically buried under mountains of infotainment (a term this film may have actually coined) and knee-jerk headlines, while the rise of social media has made getting to the truth seemingly impossible at times.
And those are just the stories we see. What makes The Insider so powerful is that for once, we get to sit in those boardrooms and high-rise offices and hear the conversations that the rich and powerful work hard to withhold. Technology, and big data specifically, has allowed for the news to be curated for individuals more finely than ever but without the right people above the keyboard fighting to publish the unvarnished truth, for-profit reporting will gladly take its place. It’s unlikely that many of us will get in a post-robbery gunfight with the cops or confront a duo of armed bandits but as long as you have a smartphone in your pocket, you’re almost guaranteed to be an unwitting victim of behind-the-scenes corporate control on a daily basis. Perhaps that’s what makes The Insider the most unexpectedly bruising film of Michael Mann’s career.