Rated R - Running Time: 2:37 - Released 11/5/99

Many people saw the story of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand a few years ago, especially those who follow the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes. Wigand was the scientific consultant who, after being fired from a large tobacco company, decided to expose the hypocrisy that permeated that most evil of empires on the country's highest rated news show. In Michael Mann's The Insider, Wigand's story is told, from the death threats he received after breaking his "confidentiality agreement," to the political ramifications of his testimony, to the furor that erupted behind the scenes at CBS News when 60 Minutes almost caved in to pressure from the mammoth and deep-pocketed tobacco industry.

Not only is the story fascinating and intelligent (written by Eric Roth, adapted from the article "The Man Who Knew Too Much" by Marie Brenner), and not only is Mann's directing inventive and yet down to earth, but the performances by the cast are truly excellent. Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential), who portrays Wigand as a man with strong integrity and dwindling options, Al Pacino as producer Lowell Bergman, the one who convinced Wigand that his story was important enough to justify putting his life on the line, and Christopher Plummer in an impeccable performance as 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, all shine with honesty and realism.

As some may remember, Wigand had been employed as corporate vice president at Brown & Williamson, testing the chemical makeup of the cigarettes produced by the company. When he piped up about the dangers of the product to consumers, he was summarily fired, but because he had knowledge of the company's secrets, he was given a lucrative severance package in return for keeping his mouth shut. When Lowell (Pacino) contacts Wigand to help explain some technical, industry-related documents, Wigand's conscience leads him to reveal secrets that make his former employers very unhappy. As his intentions with 60 Minutes become increasingly clear, he and his family begin to receive death threats. His wife (Diane Venora) promptly leaves him, taking his two daughters. Then, in an incredibly uncharacteristic move, the show's producers decide to cancel the planned interview because the tobacco company threatens CBS with a major lawsuit. So, despite Lowell's loud protests, Wigand is left out on a limb, his credibility destroyed, his reputation shattered, his marriage over.

In tone, this film bears a striking resemblance to All The Presidents' Men. The newsroom arguments, the struggle between accurate news coverage and fiscal responsibilities, and the dogged determination of its lead character to get to the truth, are all there. Not to mention the danger present when messing with the big boys. Since Mann saw that he could not keep the film under 2 hours in length, he seems to have intentionally slowed the pace, giving us time to absorb the thought processes of the characters. One flaw is the overuse of the handheld camera to convey the hectic nature of Lowell's lifestyle and the tense character of Wigand's dilemma. It worked in The Blair Witch Project because we were following three unprofessional movie producers who were running for their lives. But chasing Pacino through the streets of New York, and tripping over the occasional curbstone, gets a little old after 2+ hours. Nevertheless, The Insider is produced with vision and intelligence, and it's one of the few tinseltown products in which the characters aren't puffing away in every scene. Hmmm — I guess big tobacco didn't want to back this one. *****

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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