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Dustin Putman

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The Insider (1999)
3 Stars

Directed by Michael Mann
Cast: Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Phillip Baker Hall, Debi Mazar, Hallie Eisenberg, Lindsay Crouse, Gina Gershon, Michael Gambon, Bruce McGill, Stephen Tobolowsky, Rip Torn, Lynne Thigpen.
1999 – 158 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 7, 1999.

Controversial even before its release, "The Insider" has recently been under fire for its mostly accurate, but allegedly dramatized telling of events that took place in 1996 between the news show "60 Minutes," its television station CBS, and the tobacco industry. "60 MInutes" reporter Mike Wallace is one of many that has let his displeasure known, due to what he says are embellished details in the film, as well as the unfavorable depiction of himself. Based on the widely argued Vanity Fair article by Mary Brenner, "The Man Who Knew Too Much," filmmaker Michael Mann (1995's "Heat") has crafted a highly charged drama that, despite featuring next to no action, occasionally shifts over to being a sort of heart-stopping paranoid thriller.

The events that surround the goings-on in 1996 begin somewhere around the time middle-aged Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) is fired from his job as an executive for a tobacco company. Jobless and with a housewife (Diane Venora), two young children, one that has acute asthma, and a nice home, to support, Jeffrey Wigand is sought out by "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who is working on a story about the question of whether tobacco is addictive, which the companies say aren't. At first trying to avoid Lowell, Jeffrey finally decides to hold an interview with "60 Minutes" for a paycheck that he really needs, despite his contractual obligation that says he won't ever say anything that might put Brown & Williamson in hot water. The revelation that Jeffrey holds, however, could very well ruin him and destroy CBS if they run the interview he holds, in which he reveals that the company knew all along cigarettes were addictive and had begun to add various other chemicals so as to give them more of a kick.

For all of its very serious, disputatious subject matter, the strength of "The Insider" lies not with the premise, but in the excellent treatment it is given. In essence, a docudrama, and perhaps carrying a story more suitable for television, director Mann has transformed it into a 2 3/4-hour motion picture opus that is filled with the sort of rich details and highly felt characters that only a great director could come up with.

The first half is told mostly from the point-of-view of Jeffrey Wigand, a recovering alcoholic, but caring husband and father, whose life ultimately takes a disheartening turn when his family starts to receive ominous death threats and are suddenly overrun by the media, signaling their separation and, later, divorce. Jeffrey is played by the 35-year-old Australian actor Russell Crowe (1996's "L.A. Confidential"), and what an amazing performance he gives. Abandoning his usual good looks and gaining over 20 lbs. for the role, Crowe is not only wholly believable as a man nearly twenty years his senior, but he virtually disappears into his character, equipped with a pitch-perfect American accent. Better yet, he portrays Jeffrey Wigand as a flawed, but sympathetic man whom you know cares for his family, but also is dedicated to telling the truth, despite his possible downfall.

The focus then shifts midway through to Lowell Bergman, and when this occurs, the picture admittedly loses some of its punch. The conflict that Lowell faces is certainly an intriguing one, as he is devastated to discover that he was the antagonist that caused Jeffrey's collapse, and begins to grow doubtful of the validity of "60 Minutes," but Lowell simply isn't as fully written as Jeffrey. With a wife (Lindsay Crouse) and two teenage sons of his own, Lowell puts himself in Jeffrey's place and realizes he did a careless thing without thinking about the consequences. As Lowell Begman, Al Pacino is his usual captivating self, and is well-cast, but it really isn't much of a stretch for him, in comparison to a handful of his other roles.

The supporting cast is filled to the brimming point with first-rate talent, from Christopher Plummer's bravura turn as Mike Wallace, to Diane Venora's poignant portrayal of Jeffrey's trophy wife who wishes for something more, to young Hallie Eisenberg as Jeffrey's daughter, who has abandoned her famed Pepsi commercial spots to show that she is a natural young actress.

The largest compliment that can be given to "The Insider" is in showing the questionably dark corners that people can back themselves into. Director Mann has a gift with depicting the threat and danger of average, everyday surroundings, and is aided by one of the most impressive examples of cinematography so far this year, only equaled by "American Beauty." Director of photography Dante Spinotti benefits from intermittently using visually stunning colors amid the washed out hues of modern suburbia and New York City, as well as in using handheld cameras that put the audience in the moment, and tight close-ups. Two astounding sequences come to mind that should be noted, the first set at a desolate golf driving range late at night, and the latter involving a noise one of Jeffrey's daughters hears outside. Suspenseful and even a little eerie, those are two adjectives that, in lesser hands, you'd never hear being mentioned in a review about a film of this genre. Furthermore, the pulsing music score, by Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke, is dynamite.

By the last half hour, "The Insider" had begun to wear out its welcome, introducing further subplots and unneeded scenes, and neglecting a few of the characters I would liked to have seen given more closure, particularly Venora. But still, Mann, a master filmmaker who admittedly doesn't know when to hit the edit button, has made a film that is both powerful and thought-provoking. Whether much of it is accurate or not to the real-life story remains to be seen, but as a film, even one that has taken several liberties in search for the truth, it is an electric drama.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman