Most people wouldn’t associate Michael Mann, the showrunner for the superficially excessive 80’s show Miami Vice, to be the most sobering and verite of filmmakers. However, in 1999, he released his most haunting film to date, The Insider, which centered around a tobacco whistleblower at Phillip Morris. The scariest aspects of the movie are the paranoia that Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) experiences after he confesses to the misinformation campaign perpetrated by his company.
As 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, Al Pacino pumps the brakes on his madcap overacting that he has habitually pivoted on. Pacino is the lucid bridge between the public airwaves and the subjects that CBS chooses to showcase. He doesn’t fulminate but he has a nose for a beneficial story. He acutely addresses the major ethical quandary of the picture: Wigand is at a crossroads: either he honors his disclosure agreement to maintain his severance and medical insurance or he spills the beans in front of the camera for the American public’s welfare which will nullify his corporate agreement and could be actionable.
Meanwhile, Crowe perpetually has beads of sweat on his brow. It would be typecasting if Pacino was the semtex at the end of fuse but Crowe is the profane, unhinged crusader with the numerous outbursts. Crowe might not seem the ideal candidate for a white-haired executive. However, he proves to an ace-in-the-hole during a warts-and-all conversation with Bergman that reveals he has a combustible temper which mirrors Crowe’s phone-tossing scandal and interview walkouts. Each sitdown rendezvous between Wigand and Bergman has the hypnotic power of the diner scene in Heat.
Christopher Plummer subverts our expectations of journalist behemoth Mike Wallace with a very unflattering portrait of a narcissist who won’t sacrifice his status for a protest. For a man who could refashion the news based on a series of edits, Plummer digs into the hypocrisy of Wallace when he rages over a redacted interview.
The atmosphere is so thick with dread that Crowe is skittish when room service arrives with breakfast during a clandestine meeting with Bergman. It’s a testament to Dante Spinotti’s (of Manhunter and Red Dragon) wide-angle cinematography that the film feels like a neo-noir thriller more than an insightful character drama. The most praiseworthy example of this is a blue-luminescent scene where Jeffrey is swinging away at the driving range while a shadowy figure is looming in the background and is particularly preoccupied with Jeffrey. Between each stroke, the man pauses to leer at Wigand and it feels like the message of omnipresent danger is around her corner.
Since it wasn’t targeted at a younger demographic, The Insider was a financial windfall that failed to recoup its considerable 60-million-dollar budget. Shortly after, Disney a.k.a. Touchstone Pictures didn’t continue to foster projects that would be more adult-oriented in their appeal.
At the 1999 Academy Awards, The Insider was nominated for seven nominations including Best Picture which it lost to American Beauty. American Beauty is an overrated film which is waterlogged by a retrograde attitude towards homosexuality and tangents into purple prose (the floating bag monologue). On the other hand, The Insider is an unflinching, disquieting film that enriches with age and displays that “telling the truth” doesn’t guarantee a warm embrace and a blanket of safety.