Exposing the risks of blowing the whistle

Review: `The Insider' depicts the real-life story of a scientist who runs afoul of Big Tobacco -- and Big Journalism.

November 05, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Russell Crowe delivers a quietly mind-blowing performance in "The Insider," in which he portrays real-life tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey S. Wigand with uncanny verisimilitude.

With his upper lip covered in sweat and his oddly impassive bespectacled gaze, Crowe makes a fascinating focus for this era's closest story to Watergate in its depiction of greed, power and the fragility of the press.

Unfortunately, Crowe's presence is all but obliterated by Al Pacino, who as the crusading "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman has commandeered the story as a vanity piece for both him and his character. Rather than the far more interesting story of Wigand, who remains rather shifty even at the height of his courage, "The Insider" relates Bergman's story as if he were Woodward, Bernstein and Dr. Schweitzer all roled into one.

The worst result is that the movie clocks in at a lumbar-straining 158 minutes, with even its most tensile moments sagging under the accumulated weight of a prodigious amount of information. Audiences probably could well have done without a couple of side trips during which Bergman single-handedly breaks the Unabomber story (by the end of the movie, we wonder if he wasn't in on the entire Manhattan Project), and by its smug conclusion we begin to feel a bit worn out by Pacino/Bergman's constant self-aggrandizing.

But even its moments of blatant grandstanding don't detract from the essential story that gives "The Insider" its pulse, one of the era's most captivating cautionary tales about corporate corruption and its insidious reach at a time of media's increasing centralization. "The Insider" tells an important story about a story that might never have been told at all.

Jeffrey S. Wigand was a scientist and executive vice president of the Brown & Williamson cigarette company when he was fired in 1993 for second-guessing the company's practice of using a hazardous chemical in its products. When Bergman, an investigative reporter who worked mostly with correspondent Mike Wallace, needed a source to interpret some statistics about tobacco, he called on Wigand while the latter was still licking his wounds.

Quickly surmising that Wigand knew much more than just the subject at hand, Bergman eventually convinced the former executive to violate his confidentiality agreement with the company and tell him, and eventually the American public, what he knew: that his boss had lied in 1994 when he, along with six other tobacco company CEOs, testified before the U.S. Congress that he had no knowledge of tobacco's addictiveness. Indeed, Wigand knew what the company put in cigarettes to deliver the nicotine high even more efficiently.

"The Insider" spends a good deal of time setting up its two protagonists' lives. Bergman travels the world, swaps sexy war stories with his colleagues and lives in limousine-liberal style in Berkeley, Calif. Wigand has two daughters, one with severe asthma, and desperately needs his severance compensation to support his family. When he takes a job as a high school chemistry teacher and buys a house commensurate with his new position, his wife is mortified; when he agrees to go public, thereby breaking his confidentiality agreement and losing his severance, his life begins to unravel. Economic hardship is the least of it: Wigand began receiving death threats, and he still lives in an undisclosed location.

Indeed the predations visited upon Wigand after his decision seem to be focus enough for a contemporary thriller until the real whopper comes: After Wigand has sacrificed his family, health and maybe even life, "60 Minutes" is told by its corporate parent, CBS, to yank the interview. At first Bergman and Wallace figure that Black Rock, as CBS' corporate offices are known, is afraid of the same $15 billion lawsuit visited upon ABC in a similar case. But then it becomes apparent that the Wigand story is a pawn in a much more insidious game.

"The Insider," directed with characteristic smarts and style by Michael Mann ("Manhunter," "Heat"), wants desperately to be the "All the President's Men" for the electronic age, and it would have measured up if it had kept its eye on the ball and not followed Pacino/Bergman as he wandered hither and thither in his search for the ever-hotter story. Considering the fact that CBS' owner, Laurence Tisch, has connections to Big Tobacco that are never even raised in "The Insider," filmgoers may understandably wonder what other bits of creative license the filmmakers have taken to streamline their story.

Still, as a study of who owns the truth when the media is increasingly owned by the same corporations it should be investigating, "The Insider" questions authority with suitably operatic (literally) righteousness. Philip Baker Hall acquits himself well as "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt, and Christopher Plummer is right on the mark as Wallace, who is seen flip-flopping more strenuously than a rainbow trout.

Their slightly preening characters make the man at the center of "The Insider" even more compelling in his stillness: Crowe's Wigand emerges as that rarest of heroes, a man who is completely sympathetic without being entirely likable. It's refreshing to see a whistle-blower act from anger and revenge, rather than more telegenic nobility. No doubt we'll find out one day that Deep Throat himself was just another guy with an ax to grind.

`The Insider'

Starring Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Philip Baker Hall

Directed by Michael Mann

Rated R (language)

Running time: 158 minutes

Released by Touchstone Pictures

Sun Score: ***

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