"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Insider

In the spring of 1993, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, head of Research and Development at Brown and Williamson (then, the third largest tobacco company in the United States), was fired from his job for refusing to go along with company policy. He was unable to find another job and complained to a friend at Brown and Williamson about his severance package. It included medical coverage for his chronically ill daughter but the rest of his package was not good enough to maintain his way of life. However, by voicing his displeasure, Wigand had apparently violated his extensive confidentiality agreement with Brown and Williamson that forbade him from talking about anything to do with the company.

Several months later, Brown and Williamson filed a breach of contract suit against Wigand that threatened to end his medical coverage. Lowell Bergman, producer for the television news magazine, 60 Minutes, received a box of confidential technical documents from Philip Morris. He started looking for someone to decipher them. A contact of his referred Wigand to him. The two men first met covertly in a hotel lobby in Louisville, Kentucky in February 1994. Wigand needed the money and agreed to be paid as a consultant on Bergman's Philip Morris story. Over the next few months, Bergman persuaded Wigand to tell his story on 60 Minutes.

Getting Wigand to talk was a big coup for Bergman in his fourteen-year stint at CBS. Working with Mike Wallace, Bergman had landed some of the most controversial interviews for the show. Wigand was the highest-ranking tobacco executive to talk about the industry's practices. In his interview with Bergman, Wigand accused then president of Brown and Williamson, Thomas Sandefur, of perjury when he and other tobacco CEOs told Congress that they did not believe nicotine was addictive. Wigand also said that Brown and Williamson stopped his search for safer cigarettes and fired him after he protested the use of a cancer-causing flavor addictive pipe tobacco.

Brown and Williamson denied these charges, but Bergman, Wallace and 60 Minutes' executive producer, Don Hewitt, planned to run Wigand's interview anyway. In the fall of 1995, CBS intervened and threatened to kill the Wigand interview. The network was controlled by Laurence Tisch and his family. The Tisch family also ran Lorillard Inc, a tobacco company that was negotiating with Brown and Williamson to purchase several cigarette brands. Tisch's son was also one of the CEOs who testified before Congress. CBS Inc. also feared that a threatening Brown and Williamson multibillion dollar lawsuit over the Wigand interview would kill a pending sale of CBS to Westinghouse Electric. This sale was anticipated to earn top CBS executives millions of dollars from stock options (which it in fact did, later on).

60 Minutes paid Wigand $12,000 to decipher the Philip Morris documents and agreed to indemnify Wigand against any libel suits brought against him as a result of the interview. This made it seem like the show paid a source. CBS lawyers feared that, as a result, Brown and Williamson would sue them for "tortuous interference" — that the network had induced Wigand to violate his confidentiality agreement.

Before Wigand's segment aired on 60 Minutes, Brown and Williamson threatened CBS with lawsuits. Hewitt sided with the network brass and agreed to air Bergman's story with a watered-down version of Wigand's interview that did not mention his name, show his face or include his devastating revelations. Bergman expected Wallace to side with him but the veteran newsman did not. As the November 14 air date approached, Wallace switched back to Bergman's side and fought to get the uncut Wigand interview but CBS refused. Bergman realized that he had challenged the wrong people. He leaked the story and the reasons why CBS killed the Wigand interview to The New York Times. When Michael Mann was in post-production on Heat (1995), Bergman was going through the events depicted in The Insider (1999). Bergman discussed his trials and tribulations with Mann and called his friend, Disney executive vice-president, Susan Lyne about getting a job as a consultant. There were many stories he had worked on during his stint with 60 Minutes that would make good films but she suggested turning his most recent troubles with CBS into one in 1996.

Mann first conceived of what would become The Insider (then known only as "The Untitled Tobacco Project") between the Wigand-lite aired interview in November 1995 and February 1996, when the segment aired in its entirety and Bergman was asked to leave 60 Minutes. Marie Brenner's Vanity Fair article, "The Man Who Knew Too Much," provided Jeffrey Wigand's side of the story and Lyne obtained the movie rights in April 1996.

In keeping with all of Mann's films, the viewer is immediately thrust into a situation with no explanation and no dialogue. The first image is that of an extreme close-up of some kind of white texture captured by a shaky, hand-held camera with a driving drum beat on the soundtrack. It takes a few seconds before it is revealed to be a cloth, a blindfold on man who is being driven through a busy, noisy Middle Eastern city. The rush of noises and images is an assault on the senses. The man is surrounded by dangerous looking men with guns who eventually lead him to a room with a man who is identified as Sheik Fadlallah (Clifford Curtis), leader of the terrorist group, Hezbollah. The blindfolded man, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), is here to set up an interview with the Sheik for 60 Minutes. Mann introduces Bergman in this fashion to grab the audience's attention with a single detail and then gradually expands out to the bigger picture, which symbolizes the film's structure and its style. The events in the picture are created from a single event and everything grows from that one incident.

This scene establishes the no-nonsense tone of the movie and the professionalism of the characters. Lowell Bergman is a worldly man who is not afraid to speak his mind even when talking to the leader of the Hezbollah. He is willing to go, literally, blind into a potentially dangerous situation to get what he wants. He is a consummate professional who knows how to handle things: the quintessential Mann protagonist. The punchline of this scene is that when Bergman finally removes his blindfold, the Sheik and his people have already expertly and quietly disappeared.

Jeffrey Wigand's (Russell Crowe) introduction is also important in how it establishes his character. He is shown in the foreground of the scene but is out of focus. There is a party going on in the background that is in focus but we cannot hear it. The film cuts to a reverse shot from the party's point-of-view. Wigand is almost obscured by the party goers who are oblivious to him. Wigand is all alone in his office which establishes right away that he is an isolated protagonist. This is reinforced by the shot of him in his office: it is dark, he is alone, very quiet.

Wigand is next seen in an elevator and the scene is filtered through a hellish red light. He is framed in an unusual close-up with the camera right behind his right ear — very close and intimate. He leaves the office building in slow motion with a half-circle camera movement so that a security guard's hearing device is the focal point. This hints at the paranoia that will invade Wigand's life later on in the movie and the first visual motif of the theme of communication that reaches its zenith in this film. The way Wigand's exit is framed also visually echoes Bergman similar exit at the end of the film, except that for Wigand this is not the end, but only the beginning of his problems.

Bergman and Wigand meet in person at the former executive's house to clear up a few things. Bergman knows that Wigand wants to talk and so they talk after dropping off Wigand's kids at school. Bergman is smart in how he handles Wigand. He slowly gains his confidence, gets to know him and then lays it all out:
"If you got vital insider stuff, the American people for their welfare really do need to know and you feel impelled to disclose it and violate your agreement in doing so, that's one thing. On the other hand, you were to honor this agreement then that's it. You do so. You say nothing, you do nothing. There's only one guy who can figure that out for ya and that's you."

Wigand is still on the fence and you can see the conflict on his face. Even though Bergman is telling him that it is his decision, ultimately, he's pushing for Wigand to talk. The composition of the shot of Wigand talking is significant in that there is a river behind him but his back is to it. Water is normally associated with safety and freedom in Mann's films but in this scene it provides none of these things. This is a signifier that Wigand should not be meeting with Bergman and talking about his work with Brown and Williamson because it could threaten his life and that of his family's.

One of Mann's strengths is how he conveys expositional dialogue. This is very difficult without boring the audience who is conditioned to tune out during long, talky scenes. The scene between Bergman and Wigand in a Japanese restaurant is the centerpiece of the film, much in the same way that the Hannibal Lecktor/Will Graham conversation in Manhunter (1986) and the Vincent Hanna/ Neil McCauley restaurant scene in Heat are important because they all represent the meeting of the driving forces of their respective films. The characters meet, verbally spar with each other, conveys, either implicitly or explicitly, their worldview and most important sort things out between each other.

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. Crowe looks down as if embarrassed. He hunches over defensively with his hands together and is visibly upset as he nervous pauses between each incidence 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.

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? 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 and this gives the movie a ring of honesty to it.

Al Pacino attests to the value of underplaying his role (much as he did in Donnie Brasco and Insomnia). It is a very thoughtful, careful performance that does not resort to his usual over-the-top pyrotechnics evident in Heat and The Devil's Advocate (1997). Admittedly, those roles featured larger-than-life characters, whereas with The Insider, Pacino is playing a real person and is therefore responsible to play it more realistic. 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. He suggests that 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 Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) doesn't 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 Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) 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. He plays against expectation. We expect the typical Pacino explosion but he does not go for it.

Mann received the largest amount of positive reviews of his career for The Insider. Brian Johnson of Macleans magazine wrote that it was "the best investigative thriller since All the President's Men dramatized the Watergate scandal 23 years ago." He also wrote that "for all its surface style, however, The Insider goes deep, penetrating the corporate mind-set that has sacrificed news to infotainment." One of the few less than ecstatic reviews came from J. Hoberman of the weekly alternative newspaper, The Village Voice. He criticized the film for "confusing self-importance with importance," and wrote that Mann "inflates his potentially nifty thriller with superfluous scenes extra-padded by wasted motion." When Hoberman did praise the film it was in a backhanded way. He wrote that "the movie is stolen by Christopher Plummer's hilarious Mike Wallace impersonation...His Wallace is the most naturalistic character in the film." One of the most insightful reviews came from Manohla Dargis of the L.A. Weekly who recognized that "the issue at its heart is free will - to smoke, to make right and wrong decisions, to sell out, to not sell yourself out and everyone along with you." She went on to also praise "Plummer's fiendish read on Wallace," and how it "makes it hard to imagine ever looking at the newsman with a straight face again."

The Insider is Mann's masterpiece because it represents the perfect union of his highly stylized mise-en-scene with his thematic pre-occupations. The style never overwhelms the content. The film also shows an evolution in his themes. Once again, a protagonist's family life is destroyed as a result of his professional nature but in this case it was for the greater good. Wigand did what he did because he felt that the American public had a right to know that cigarettes were purposely made to be addictive. In doing so, he sacrificed his own happiness and security.


  1. Great piece on one of my favorite films. I just mentioned your blog over at Moon In The Gutter so I hope it brings some well deserved hits your way.
    Keep up the great work...

  2. Thanks so much! I really appreciate the feedback and also the mention on your blog.

  3. You just can't make this stuff up JD. What a complex story about the nature and reality of corporate giants with key players as the pawns in the game. Fascinating review.

    I want you to know I am going back to look at your earlier work and it would seem you wrote this in the earliest phase of your blog. It is exceptional.

    I learned alot from your weave through this terrific film. It remains one of my favorites to this day.

    Crowe is such a sympathetic character which is refreshing for Crowe.

    It's been awhile since seeing it, perhaps the river is also a symbol of Wigand's desire to escape. Maybe.

    It's fair to say Mann's film is no small achievement. The fact that he made this material, while interesting in general, so compelling is remarkable. He makes this move. There is a dangerous energy to the film and the performances are brilliant. Your review has me excited about watching it again.

    By the way, Hoberman doesn't have a clue.

    Your final thought about the film's style never overwhelming its content is exactly right. It's the perfect marriage from Mann. Excellent.

  4. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Thank you for the kind words!

    I really love this film and it may very well be my fave Mann film, hands down.

    Crowe is astonishing in this film. For a lot of it, he delivers an introverted performance but once he gets betrayed by CBS and his frustrations boil over, he really delivers the goods. Him and Pacino who is in top form as well.

    Interesting thoughts on the symbolism of the river. You may be onto something there.

    And I agree with you on Hoberman. Normally, I find his reviews right on the money but he missed the boat with this film.

    For a film that features so much talking, the film is never dull and Mann really goes a long way in making visually stunning and inherently cinematic.

  5. Director Michael Mann is known chiefly for his Action/Thrillers. This 155 minute film is slow paced but gripping for ever second it is on the screen.