By J.D. Lafrance
Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the typewriter, Michael Mann brought the crusading journalist back with The Insider (1999), which did for television journalism what All the President’s Men (1976) did for newspaper reporters. By 1999, with the exception of The Keep (1983) and The Last of the Mohicans (1992), people expected to see a bang, bang, shoot ‘em up, cops and robbers story from him. While Heat (1995) is often regarded as his signature film, The Insider is The One, an ideal fusion of his artistic and commercial sensibilities.
While The Insider certainly has its version of cops and robbers, good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats, Mann subverts his own stereotypes where the good guy and the bad guy are encapsulated in one man who grapples with his soul and makes hard decisions based on what he believes is right. For the first time in his career, Mann presented a vast antagonist and not just a serial killer or a bank robber but instead powerful institutions – a wealthy tobacco company and a major T.V. network. While they are given human faces – the CEO of the company or a high-ranking executive – they are minions of a much greater threat.
Based on actual events, The Insider dramatizes ex-big tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand’s (Russell Crowe) decision to blow the whistle on his company’s refusal to admit that they intentionally make cigarettes addictive for profit by doing an interview with 60 Minutes only to have his personal life and professional reputation dragged through the mud when CBS refused to air said interview as a result of corporate skullduggery. This prompted Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), one of the show’s producers, to clear Wigand’s name and expose the network’s betrayal to the world.
Bergman and Wigand initially meet secretly at a hotel that is both clandestine and professional. The former executive is visibly nervous by the way he acts, his head jerking suddenly when room service knocks on the door. He has backed himself up against the far wall of the room. A waiter comes in and gives Wigand a look that the executive returns. It becomes clear that Wigand does not trust anyone and maybe this is with good reason but this is not immediately clear. His nervousness and paranoia, however, will become the driving force of the first half of the film. Bergman and Wigand verbally spar, testing each other much like Hannibal Lecktor and Will Graham do in their initial meeting in Manhunter (1986). At one point, Wigand says, “How do radical journalists from Ramparts magazine end up at CBS?” To which Bergman responds, “I still do the tough stories. 60 Minutes reaches a lot of people.”
Bergman shows Wigand the documents he wants translated for an upcoming story but there is the implication of something else in this scene. Wigand tells Bergman, “I can talk to you about what’s in here. I can’t talk to you about anything else.” Bergman did not mention anything else. He nods. He immediately understands what Wigand is really trying to say. In turn, Bergman implies that if Wigand wants to talk more, it is up to him. As with Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna in Heat, Bergman and Wigand use this conversation to get a feeling for each other, testing one another in order to see if they share each other’s obsession for being professional. Once this is recognized by each man then they feel more comfortable with each other and a kind of trust is established.
There are several things that Brown and Williamson do that finally motivates Wigand to speak out. The first one occurs when he is called back to their offices. Wigand sits in the lobby, looking angry as a cleaner loudly operates nearby. As he is summoned, the guard looks at him with a cold and uninviting stare. The meeting between Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon) and Wigand is similar to the exchange between Graham and Lecktor in Manhunter in that it is not what is being said that is important but what is being implied. Sandefur absolutely reeks of false sincerity. He starts off with meaningless small talk but there is always something implied. For example, when he talks about Wigand’s golfing prowess, he says, “It’s spooky how he can concentrate.” Gambon delivers this line with a creepy, almost threatening tone in the way he emphasizes the word, “spooky.” Mann then cuts to Sandefur’s hand playing with a pen. He has long fingernails like the Devil or a vampire.
Sandefur is a kind of corporate devil by forcing Wigand to sign another agreement that will restrict his freedoms even more. Wigand, however, cuts right to the chase and asks what they want. He is civil but the anger is boiling under the surface, barely contained. Sandefur, as always, is calm and cheery, much like Lecktor, but the menacing intent is there. He is pushing Wigand, testing him to see how much of it he will take. As they continue talking, Wigand constantly cuts to the point while Sandefur constantly digresses and dances around the issue. Wigand says that he will not violate his confidentiality agreement but that is not good enough for Sandefur as he says, “But upon reflection, we’ve decided to expand our zone of comfort with you.” Sandefur is all about corporate doublespeak. It shows the contrast in communication techniques: Wigand is clear in what he says, while Sandefur hides behind jargon and a cheerful façade. If Wigand does not comply and is found in breach of his agreement, Brown and Williamson will terminate his health plan and sue him. That is it for Wigand. He has had it and storms out of the room. One of Sandefur’s lawyers (Gary Sandy) says, “I’m not sure he got the message.” Sandufur replies with a bemused expression that could certainly be interpreted as a subtle, evil grin, “Oh, I think he did.”
As he did with Manhunter, Mann cast a British actor to play the personification of banal evil with Michael Gambon, who, like Brian Cox, has very little screen time but makes the most of it with a character that conveys palpable viciousness under a polite veneer. This is another re-occurring preoccupation of Mann’s. Malevolence always comes in the form of a cultured surface but underneath lurks a dangerous presence. There are the British actors that represent the repressive regime in The Last of the Mohicans or the Islamic group and the figures from the U.S. Government in Ali (2001) who never reveal their specific interest in Muhammad Ali but definitely represent a threatening presence. Clearly, these people are not to be trusted. In Mann’s world the hard-working individual is the one to be admired and respected.
One of Mann’s strengths is how he conveys expositional dialogue. This is very difficult without boring an audience conditioned to tune out during long, talky scenes. However, the scene between Bergman and his co-workers over lunch works because of how Mann shoots and edits the scene. They are sitting around talking and brainstorming about Wigand and the danger of interviewing him. There is a lot of exposition and facts about tobacco being thrown around but Mann uses multiple camera set-ups and has such talented actors speaking the dialogue that it keeps everything interesting. There are a lot of different camera angles in this scene but the editing is not done in a rapid-fire haphazard fashion like in a Michael Bay film where no shot lasts for more than thirty seconds. There is the feeling that Mann knows what an edit means and they are not intrusive and allow the scene to flow organically. This scene is also a great example of communication between dedicated professionals trying to work towards a common goal and how Mann is able to convey this in a cinematic way.
The scene between Bergman and Wigand in the Japanese restaurant is the centerpiece of the film much in the same way that the Lecktor/Graham conversation in Manhunter and the Vincent Hanna/Neil McCauley restaurant scene in Heat are important as they all represent the meeting of the driving forces of their respective films. The characters meet, verbally spar with each other, convey, either implicitly or explicitly, their worldview, and, most importantly, sort things out between each other.
At first, they talk about their fathers but it is evident that Bergman doesn’t feel comfortable with that subject and cuts right to the chase. This is interesting because it is usually Wigand who is straight-forward. Wigand feels nervous and apprehensive and uses small talk to warm up a little. Russell Crowe is excellent in this scene as he reacts to Bergman asking him to list all the bad things he’s done in his life that could be used against him in the media. The actor looks down as if embarrassed. He hunches over defensively with his hands together and is visibly upset as he nervously pauses between each incident, or the way he pushes back his glasses with his middle finger every so often, and his jerky head movements. The tics and mannerisms are so believable here.
Finally, Wigand calls Bergman on his intentions: “I’m just a commodity to you, aren’t I? I could be anything, right? Anything worth putting on between commercials.” Bergman responds, “To a network probably we’re all commodities. To me you’re not a commodity, what you are is important. You go public and 30 million people hear what you got to say, nothing, I mean nothing will ever be the same.” Wigand counters by saying exactly how he feels: “And maybe for the audience it’s just voyeurism, something to do on a Sunday night and maybe it won’t change a fucking thing, but people like myself and my family are left hung out to dry, used up, broke, alone.” Wigand is not only referring to the television audience, but by extension the movie-going audience that is also watching this film. It is as if Mann is also saying that maybe this film will not change anything either but it is still an important story to tell, which is what Bergman argues in this scene.
Another key exchange in this scene is when Bergman asks him why he took the job at Brown and Williamson to which Wigand responds, “Mostly, I got paid a lot.” Bergman replies, “There’s nothing wrong with that.” The Insider is a film about how these two men justify themselves in the eyes of their peers and their family. Bergman has to struggle with going commercial: the soft approach for a bigger audience versus critical stories on big topics for a smaller public. One could read this as a dilemma for Mann himself: how does he feel directing a multi-million dollar production about big tobacco for another big company like Disney? One of the questions that the film poses is how far can you go? Are you willing to sell-out or can you remain true to your beliefs regardless of the external opposition and internal pressure? One of things that stands out in this scene is Wigand’s almost obsessive pre-occupation with health issues. One of his major fears is the loss of health insurance for him and his family. This is something that would worry a real person but in most Hollywood films this does not seem to exist. The characters in The Insider are not dodging bullets or getting into car chases on a daily basis. They have to worry about real issues, which gives the film a ring of honesty to it.
A major shift in the film takes place during the scene where Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) and Bergman meet with CBS corporate executives over the Wigand interview. Where Wigand propelled the narrative of the first half of The Insider, Bergman will drive the second half as he fights to clear Wigand’s name. The CBS corporate representative, Helen Caperelli, (Gina Gershon) throws around all kinds of jargon like “legal concept”, “tortious interference” and describes the Wigand interview as “rife with problems.” Like the scene with Sandefur, this is a prime example of professional communication. No simple demonizing, just everybody doing their job.
Brown and Williamson owns Wigand’s information and CBS could be held libel for airing the interview. Bottom line: if they air it and Brown and Williamson sues, CBS could effectively be owned by the tobacco company. Caperelli even emphasizes that this is because of the Wigand segment. Even though she uses a lot of doublespeak the implied threat is there and Bergman picks up on it right away. Wallace tries to reassure Bergman but the look on Pacino’s face says otherwise. This superb reaction shot by Pacino attests to the value in underplaying his role (much as he did in Donnie Brasco and Insomnia). It’s a very thoughtful, careful performance that does not resort to his usual over-the-top pyrotechnics evident in Heat. Admittedly, that role featured a larger-than-life character whereas with The Insider, Pacino is playing a real person and is therefore responsible to play it more realistic.
Mann and Pacino are very conscious of not letting the actor go off on any out-of-character outbursts. This is evident in the scene where Bergman meets again with Hewitt, Wallace and, this time, Eric Kluster (Stephen Tobolowsky), the head of CBS News. Kluster suggests an alternate version of the Wigand interview be done, just in case. When Bergman refuses Kluster says that the alternate will be done with or without him, which causes Bergman to say, “Since when has the paragon of investigative journalism allowed lawyers to determine the news content on 60 Minutes.” Then, Bergman uses his trump card: the sale between CBS and Westinghouse — that will make CBS executives like Kluster very rich — could be threatened by a nasty lawsuit from Brown and Williamson. Pacino really shines in this scene as he defiantly stands up to Kluster and lays it all out: 60 Minutes is being compromised and pressured by internal forces. “And Jeffrey Wigand who’s out on a limb, does he go on television and tell the truth? Yes. Is it newsworthy? Yes. Are we gonna air it? Of course not. Why? Because he’s not telling the truth? No. Because he is telling the truth. That’s why we’re not gonna air it. And the more truth he tells, the worse it gets.”
The temptation for Pacino to go over the top in this scene is great but he keeps it contained. He is angry but does not chew up the scenery. And then he goes in for the kill when Hewitt does not back him up. He rages, “What are you? Are you a businessman or are you a newsman?” It is a rhetorical question because it is obvious what he is. Then, Bergman looks at Wallace to back him up but he does not. The look on Pacino’s face says it all: shock and amazement. Instead of exploding as we expect Pacino to do. He says nothing and just leaves the room. Pacino plays against expectation. We expect the typical Pacino explosion but he does not go for it.
The slur campaign against Wigand begins. Hewitt hands Bergman a dossier on Wigand that discredits him. Bergman and Wigand talk again on the phone and he tells him about the dossier and how he has to refute all of the allegations. Wigand counters, “Who’s life if you look at it under a microscope doesn’t have any flaws!” To which Bergman replies, “That’s the whole point, Jeffrey! That’s the whole point. Anyones, everyones. They are gonna look under every rock, dig up every flaw, every mistake you’ve ever made. They are gonna distort and exaggerate everything you’ve ever done.”
Both men are right and now the fight is on. Mann, through editing, gradually builds the pace and momentum as Bergman contacts various colleagues and uses all of his connections to counter attack and to refute the dossier. Much like the deciphering of the Tooth Fairy note to Lecktor in Manhunter, Mann shows the mechanics of the legwork that Bergman must do in order to clear Wigand. The Insider is a paranoia film for the information age and how the mega-corporations control all the important information. As Bergman says at one point, “They own the information he’s using.” This is one of the staples of the paranoia thriller genre. However, instead of opting for surreal satire as in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) or the vast political conspiracy fantasy of JFK (1991), The Insider is about how big corporations, like Brown and Williamson, use methods of pressure that are depressingly everyday. Wigand is endangered by corporate doublespeak, threatening emails and legal action — a far cry from the elaborate mind control schemes and multiple assassins with high-powered rifles of past paranoid thrillers. Why employ such obvious methods like physical brutality and assassinations at gunpoint when one can perform a character assassination via the media that is less risky and just as devastating? This is the information age and anyone can be built up or brought down by the flow of information. The real power is in those who control it and distribute it.
If it seems that Wallace is portrayed as a vain celebrity merely concerned with his image, the scene between him and Bergman gives him added dimension as he defends his initial decision to back CBS and not Bergman: “History will remember most what you did last. And should that be fronting a segment that allowed a tobacco giant to crash this network? Does it give someone in my time of life pause? Yeah.” This speech humanizes Wallace because it shows that he is not just some blowhard, some egomaniac. There was a reason why he did what he did. Christopher Plummer and Pacino play this scene so well as they handle their conversation like two old friends reconciling after a big blowout argument.
The full-length Wigand interview is finally aired and a montage of all the principle figures in the film (Wigand, Bergman, Hewitt, etc.) and every day people all over the country watching it illustrates the importance of what Wigand has to say and how the addictive nature of cigarettes is an issue that affects everybody. Wigand has his children over for dinner and to watch his interview on 60 Minutes. They can finally see why their father did what he did. One of his girls looks over at him admiringly, which makes it all worth it for Wigand. She is clearly proud of him, which is why he did the interview in the first place.
The final talk between Bergman and Wallace is an important scene in that it shows the end of a long friendship between two professional men. Bergman says, “I quit, Mike,” to which Wallace replies, “Bullshit. It all worked out. We came out okay in the end.” Bergman counters, “I did? What’ll I tell a source on the next tough story? Hang in with us you’ll be fine, maybe. What got broken here, doesn’t go back together again.” Bergman is someone who relies on his word and his reputation. CBS has tarnished it and he cannot, in good conscience, continue to work with them if there is the possibility that they will continue to interfere with any more tough stories. He is a Mann protagonist and must be his own person and have his freedom. This is not possible if he continues to work for CBS and so he must quit.
Bergman leaves the CBS building in slow motion just like Wigand did at the beginning of the film when left the Brown and Williamson building, which further links the two protagonists. Pacino literally exits the frame to an uncertain future. Both men have uncertain futures, but at least they have stayed true to their beliefs and their ideals. They did not back down or compromise and that is something to be admired and respected in Mann’s world.