Michael Mann’s “The Insider,” 20 Years Later

Toward the end of Sydney Lumet’s ’70s classic Serpico there is an unnerving scene that encapsulates the conundrum faced by the eponymous cop: already persona non grata within the law enforcement fraternity for his refusal to take bribes, Serpico is transferred to the narcotics division, where the beat is the exceedingly dangerous streets way off Broadway. His new partner grimly explains that, compared to the types of kickbacks Serpico was accustomed to seeing, the haul in narcotics is serious business. “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.” In this moment Serpico finally understands that his life is now in greater danger, amongst police officers than at the hands of criminals, because of his insistence on obeying the law.

This scenario, magnified many times over (in terms of the cash, and the stakes) is what Jeffrey Wigand went up against when he made the excruciating decision to defy his former employer, Brown and Williamson, and expose their big, dirty secrets on 60 Minutes. His reluctance to quietly play ball helped get him fired; his refusal to remain silent made him a target of a very committed company with ridiculously deep pockets. Like Serpico, Wigand was obliged to work from within to affect change. He is, in the words of Lowell Bergman (serendipitously portrayed by Al Pacino), the “ultimate insider”. So why is this story important? Trying to remember the world when it was still in Big Tobacco’s unthreatened sway is sort of like trying to imagine the same world before it was wide and webbed. Yet both of those eras are not impossible to recall: they are still quite clearly in the rear-view mirror; one just needs to see through the smoke.

(This piece originally appeared in PopMatters)

Even before they started taking down the Marlboro Man billboards, just about everyone agreed cigarettes were bad for you. Macho associations aside, it was more a matter of freewill; not unlike drinking alcohol, certain risks are associated with legal, if unhealthy behavior. That’s America. Of course, more than a few people would have been outraged to learn how much chemical manipulation was taking place in order to make those cancer sticks even more habit- forming.

So: some dirty secrets were kept strictly under wraps, as a matter of policy. Big Tobacco counted the money and its executives testified that, to their knowledge, nicotine was not addictive. Considering the money involved, the perjury committed, and the industry’s unfettered success with litigation, only the most recalcitrant underling would dare defy its wrath.

Enter Jeffery Wigand, VP of Research and Development at Brown & Williamson in Louisville Kentucky. He is well paid if unfulfilled, but reaches the end of his moral rope once he discovers the company is systematically using toxic chemicals (like ammonia) to enhance the addictive properties of its cigarettes. His refusal to play ball gets him fired; his refusal to remain silent about it invokes the god-like wrath of his former employer. Enter Lowell Bergman, producer for the CBS show 60 Minutes, who could accurately be called a crusader (as a compliment from his fans and an epithet from his enemies).

Bergman meets Wigand by chance, but quickly realizes the powerful information the scientist is struggling to conceal. The tipping point — for both men — is when they each understand how badly Wigand actually wants to speak out, and it’s only the threat of a lawsuit (and loss of severance) that is keeping him quiet. To ensure they have made their position clear, B & W initiates some subtle and not-so-subtle harassment of Wigand’s family. Once the death threats begin, he decides to tell his story to Mike Wallace. The rest is history.

The Insider is an unqualified artistic success, and one of the most important movies of the last ten years. It is remarkable drama, compellingly portrayed. It is also director Michael Mann’s finest film. It features a gorgeous soundtrack (courtesy of Lisa Gerrard). It boasts some of the finest acting in Al Pacino’s legendary career. And Russell Crowe not only delivers his personal best work, he turns in what is possibly the best performance since De Niro in Raging Bull. With all respect to Mann’s considerable abilities, he wisely manages to stay out of the way and let the scope of this story supply its own abundant energy. His restraint has the opposite effect of the overwrought (and overrated) Heat, which attempted to parlay an armed robbery into an opera.

With The Insider, he takes grand theater and mostly scales it down to its human elements: the people making the decisions and the people devastated by them. Forget the forever discussed showdown between Pacino and De Niro in Heat. The ongoing confrontations (initially contentious, ultimately loving) between Pacino and Crowe are effulgent. Their entire time on the screen is a two-and-a-half hour acting clinic.

Jeffrey Wigand, as a character (and a role) is practically too good to be true: his life is derailed in part by his own hubris and mostly by the ugliest kinds of corporate machinations. Ultimately he recognizes his fate is to accept the circumstances and consequences that are bigger than his privacy or security. Crowe is equal to the task. Beyond the superb script and expert direction, he instinctively grasps that in order to convey the depths of Wigand’s turmoil (and, equally important, avoid an easy, almost inevitable descent into bathos — one shudders to think of what the majority of A-List actors would have done to this part, if given the opportunity), he has to present a brilliantly flawed man always at risk of imploding. Wigand is not a saint and neither Crowe nor Mann attempt to portray him as one. There is so much anger, frustration and fear coiled within his super-sized frame, Crowe consistently seems obliged to expel words from his mouth as much as speak them. As Wigand, he is almost unrecognizable with his added weight, bleached hair, glasses and disheveled defensiveness.

As Lowell Bergmann, the irrepressible producer who has the pleasure (and burden) of working with the megalomaniacal Mike Wallace, Pacino conveys the passion and purposeful edge that made Wigand’s ultimate triumph possible. Bergmann’s quandary is less dangerous but arguably more unwieldy: after gaining Wigand’s trust and convincing him to break his confidentiality agreement, he is directed by the brass at CBS to censor the segment. “The greater the truth, the greater the damage,” he is told in a sickening sequence that illustrates the ways in which corporate media’s cowardice might be even more profound than Big Tobacco’s rapacity.

The Insider is a rare artistic achievement that is compelling as it is important. It is a document that recalls the world as it used to be, while depicting the decisions and events that changed it for the better.

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