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The Boston Phoenix Smoke Screen

Michael Mann lights up "The Insider"

By Peter Keough

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  Light streams through a blindfold in the opening image of The Insider in a veiled reference to the dubious distinction of the title situation. Like several recent films, most notably Fight Club and American Beauty, Michael Mann's new movie casts a jaundiced eye on the seemingly privileged world of middle-class, male, white America. Compared with The Insider, however, the others seem, for better and worse, mere light entertainment. Maybe it's because this version of the American nightmare is based on a true story, or maybe it's due to Mann's hypnotic layering of image and sound and his superb cast's excruciating intensity, but The Insider's anguish and tragedy are, from the beginning, in your face.

The blindfolded man is Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), maverick producer of 60 Minutes, who's being escorted through dusty streets somewhere in Lebanon to meet with a Hepzollah leader in order to set up an interview with Mike Wallace (a devastatingly accurate portrayal by Christopher Plummer). This, however, is not the story The Insider tells, though it's teasing enough, and along with other Bergman assignments encountered along the film's margins -- the Unabomber, for example -- it feels as if it might be more cinematic than the tale of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe).

A vice-president in charge of R&D at the tobacco corporation Brown & Williamson, Wigand finds himself without a job when he balks at measures that would augment the addictiveness of cigarettes. Bergman seeks him out for a spot on 60 Minutes that would obliterate the tobacco industry's smokescreen of know-nothingism, but bound by a confidentiality agreement, Wigand refuses. When his ex-company plays hardball, however, issuing threats and harassing him, Wigand tells all he knows to Wallace on tape, initiating a Kafkaesque slide that ends with his life in shambles, the reputation of CBS tarnished, and Big Tobacco coughing up $246 billion to 50 states in lawsuits.

This important and complex chapter in contemporary history was well-suited to the 1998 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner on which the film is based. As a movie, though, it offers challenges -- such as length and style. Mann does 60 Minutes 100 minutes better; and all the tight shots and wobbly hand-held cameras can't disguise the fact that most of the action consists of people talking on cell phones or looking up information in the Yellow Pages. As revelatory investigations go, this is no All the President's Men. What Mann accomplishes is more akin to Francis Coppola's masterpiece The Conversation: it's a claustrophobic case study of insiders appalled by the moral implications of their comfort and privilege, and of what awaits them when they become outsiders.

Such a spiritual journey demands the best actors, and Russell Crowe gives his most nuanced performance to date. His Wigand twitches and fumes beneath a shield of red-faced corpulence, and a lot of his turmoil is self-imposed. A former health-services scientist, he got into the devil's business for the nice house and the cars and the money, to make a cushy life for his daughters and his wife (Diane Venora, doing her best with her role's money-grubbing Southern-belle stereotype, one of the film's main weaknesses).

Wigand's perseverance in blowing the whistle seems prompted less by integrity than by the posturings of vanity, spite, and a guilty conscience. As his estrangement and ostracism intensify, however, so does our identification with him. His oppression and alienation are palpable, not just pitiable, whether it's the near-surreality of the after-hours golf-driving range where he first discovers he's being followed, or the pathos of his tumbling down on his lawn as corrupt FBI agents cart off the evidence he needs to vindicate himself.

Neither is Pacino's Lowell Bergman a profile in courage. Asked by Wigand what a former editor of Ramparts is doing at CBS, he says it's the opportunity the highest-rated TV show gives him to expose of the truth. And with his latter-day Dog Day Afternoon haircut and prickly righteousness, he makes a good case. But his passion isn't really truth or justice or revealing the human cost of it all -- it's his "word," his reputation for delivering the goods as promised.

The conflict between these two is the core of the drama: Wigand trying to redeem himself from selling out, Bergman so determined not to sell out that he's not sure what it is he's offering for sale. This confrontation culminates in one of the great scenes of what's proving to be a remarkable movie year. No surprise that it involves people on the phone: Bergman, on forced leave of absence, with the real sea roaring behind him, shouts furiously at Wigand, who's catatonic in a hotel room, swallowed up by a trompe-l'oeil landscape painted on the wall. Insiders, both, and desperately more so when the blindfolds finally come off.


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