1999, R, 157 min. Directed by Michael Mann. Starring Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Philip Baker Hall, Diane Venora, Debi Mazar, Colm Feore, Rip Torn.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 5, 1999
Walking out of The Insider the other day, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd just sat through an awfully long, awfully big movie that hinges, more or less, on something not happening. (Something eventually happens, though, and since this is all a matter of public record, you probably already know all about it.) Michael Mann (Heat, Manhunter) loves his close-ups though, and so the camera dutifully pulls in tight, tighter, tightest again and again on Mr. Pacino and Mr. Crowe until you finally feel like their bed partners must feel every morning, waking up next to those stubbly cheekbones and the too-close crow's feet around their eyes. Yeesh. Michael Mann needs a lesson in personal space -- this isn't Once Upon a Time in the West, after all. It's not even All the President's Men, though it has been compared to that quite a lot lately, and not always favorably, thank goodness. The Insider tells the true-life (as true as Hollywood is going to get it, anyway) tale of 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Pacino) and his quest to get a recently fired tobacco company scientist by the name of Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe) to come on the show and give up the goods on his former employers. It's obvious from the start that Wigand is itching to talk -- you can see him trying to scheme his way around the company's confidentiality agreement even as Bergman gleefully assists -- though when he finally does, it essentially ruins his entire life. The Insider is more interesting when it focuses on the power struggle between CBS brass, who want to kill the Wigand segment (which eventually ran some two months later back in the real world), and Bergman and Mike Wallace (portrayed here by Plummer, a bit of a stretch, but not nearly as bad as you might think), who've gotten this poor schmuck out on an increasingly perilous 60 Minutes limb in the first place. By breaking his confidentiality agreement, Wigand loses his golden parachute, along with his family's medical insurance, leaving him with no choice but to get a job teaching high-school chemistry while his old tobacco bosses tar and feather him in the local media. Mann scores highest when he uses the film as an illustration of the behind-the-scenes machinations that go on in modern broadcast journalism. Pacino's crusading Bergman is a liberal's liberal -- he makes Noam Chomsky look like a Bush boy, and painting the man in such broad strokes just seems too easy. Far more appealing is Crowe's conflicted Wigand, his face set in a perpetual look of hangdog expectancy, just waiting for the next blow to land. At two and a half hours, The Insider could use a 20-minute trim, though Mann, ever the showman, struggles feverishly to keep us from getting too bogged down in an admittedly convoluted storyline. Finally, it's all a little too polished, a little too smug to be ranked up there as one of the great journalism films, try though it might; it feels like it's missing a car chase or some such, surely a by-product of Mann's machismo-lite direction.