It’s a fact that millions more people have died of ailments caused by cigarette smoke than by all terrorist attacks in every country since time began, so when Michael Mann opens his film about tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffery Wigand (Russell Crowe) with CBS producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) preparing a 60 Minutes interview with Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, cleric and cheerleader for suicide bombers, Mann had me at “hello.” The narrative with Wigand and his exposure of Big Tobacco then begins to methodically unfold. It is the perfect prologue that deftly, almost subliminally, makes its point without preaching or going on a didactic rant – it’s a fact that must be noted and kept for further reference.
Mann’s film is a tight, flawless procedural based on a magazine article entitled “The Man Who Knew Too Much” that covers not only Wigand’s expose of his former employer, but the friction caused at every turn. Mann puts down layer after layer of reasons NOT to whistle blow; there’s Wigand and his vulnerable family, his initial mistrust of Bergman, resistance and suppression from CBS and its prima donna-in-residence, Mike Wallace, legal entanglements caused by a non-disclosure agreement, and personal threats from the troll hiding under the bridge, i.e. Big Tobacco.
The centerpiece for the film, the keystone that holds it together for director Mann, is the performance by 33-year-old Russell Crowe as 54-year-old Wigand. Serious film fans were aware of this New Zealander from his performances in Romper Stomper and LA Confidential, but The Insider contained the leading role we all suspected he was capable of. Many of us will go to our graves knowing that Crowe’s Oscar the following year was as much for The Insider as it was for Gladiator. It’s a nuanced portrayal defined by language, expression and body language, with little in regards to heavy make-up or latex prosthetics, other than some weight gain, a couple of wrinkles, and a few liver spots.
Pacino does what he does best – the relentless and thoughtful crusader, while Christopher Plummer is all glorious arrogance and determination as Mike Wallace – all you have to do with him is wind him up, aim him in the right direction and stand back.
The film exposes in detail all of the many pitfalls that face a whistleblower without once passing judgment against either side. It presents the conundrum precisely as what it is, that is, a personal choice based on one’s moral judgment when faced with damning facts. Facts are simply just facts, but as Mann exposes them, the pressure builds, the suspense intensifies, and before you realize it, everybody involved has something to lose, depending upon the results.
The Insider ranks with All The President’s Men, Spotlight and Zodiac in both importance and skill of execution. The film, including Mann and Crowe, garnered some of the best reviews in the 1999 season but was met with a tepid box office, a particular audience quirk especially prevalent in the 90s. Consider this: All the President’s Men in 1976 had a domestic gross of about $70 million. The domestic gross for Zodiac (2007) and Spotlight (2015) were $33 million and $45 million, respectively. The Insider’s domestic gross was just shy of $30 million, indicating a growing malaise that did not exist in the 1970s in moviegoers towards films that focus on investigative journalism and stories of weight that are ripped from the headlines of the day. The film’s producer, Joe Roth, said that people asked him, “why don’t you make more movies like that?” Beautifully crafted intelligent adult dramas simply no longer draw at the box office. Said Roth, “It’s like walking uphill with a refrigerator on your back.”
Further proof that unanimous critical praise began to mean little in 1999 just as it means nothing today. And we all wonder why we can’t have nice things. The Insider is one of those now elusive gems.