Friday, August 9, 2013

FI: The Insider

The Insider
1999, US
Directed and co-written (with Eric Roth) by Michael Mann

A film like Michael Mann's The Insider is a rare thing: it takes an issue that could seem boring or uninteresting—Big Tobacco's pretense of plausible deniability regarding nicotine's addictive properties—and, without resorting to cheap cliche, finds a way to build a compelling, propulsive thriller around it. It's not a thriller of action, or of physical peril, but a thriller about a truth in danger of being smothered by power, money, and fear. But while that truth revolves around a tobacco whistleblower, the story at the film's heart is about the death throes of journalism in the face of media conglomerates and infotainment.

The Insider tells the true story of recently-fired scientist/executive Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and 60 Minutes journalist Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who work together to find holes in Big Tobacco's legal strategy and expose the industry's complicity in its products' health risks. Mann does well dramatizing the chess match between both sides, with all of its attendant procedural beats, and his and Eric Roth's script ramps up the stakes as the drama requires. Mann's handheld cameras and claustrophobic angles help us feel Wigand's vulnerability and paranoia as the industry's mind games destabilize his life. Crowe was the Oscar nominee, here, and deservedly so, but all of the performers are at the top of their games—both the leads and the stand-out supporting cast like Christopher Plummer as the legendary Mike Wallace and Bruce McGill as fiery attorney Ron Motley.

But beyond the legal struggle, the film is about how we get information, about who we can trust and whose interests the "truths" we receive might really be serving. The Insider lets us into the world of TV journalism, and we see both the egos at play and the shifting power balance between diligent reportage and corporate oversight. Though some of these concepts are well-worn—one of my favorite films, Network, satirized similar issues in 1976—it never hurts to be reminded of the forces arrayed against letting the truth get out. Despite a bit of excess in its 2.5-hour running time, The Insider remains a taut, magnetic film, and a powerful reminder of the personal and professional cost of going against the grain for the greater good.

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