Entering the theatre, you pretty much know what to expect from The Insider. The latest film from Michael Mann is a dramatization of the events that led former tobacco-industry executive Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) to confess in a 60 Minutes interview that his company had knowingly made its cigarettes more addictive, only to see his interview yanked from the show due to corporate politics.
These facts have been in the public record for quite some time, and in lesser hands, they would barely sustain a TV movie-of-the-week. But Mann, whose previous credits include Heat and The Last of the Mohicans, has pulled off something quite amazing, transcending the particularities of this true-life story and turning it into a fascinating case study in the role of such virtues as integrity and being true to one’s word.
The central figure in this film is Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer at 60 Minutes whose job consists largely of making straight the paths of co-host Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer). The film begins with Bergman being taken, blindfolded, into the headquarters of an Arabic sheik who has been linked to terrorist activity. Bergman persuades the sheik to consent to an interview with Wallace, pointing to his show’s reputation for integrity and objectivity. When Wallace shows up, he has an integrity of his own to defend; when a security guard tells him to sit further away from the sheik, he barks testily that he sits wherever he pleases. He’s a newsman, and he makes exceptions for nobody.
Meanwhile, across the world, Jeffrey Wigand has just lost his job as vice president of research at Brown and Williamson, for daring to question the cigarette manufacturer’s ethics. He agrees to adhere to his contract’s confidentiality clause, but when the company’s president (Michael Gambon) tries to blackmail him into signing a stricter agreement — and when death threats begin showing up in his mailbox and over the internet — he changes his mind. His own honor has come under attack, and so he decides to go public.
What follows is a fragile alliance between Bergman, who once again stakes everything on his show’s reputation for looking after its sources, and Wigand, who suspects the network will abandon him once he has risked everything — his family, his privacy and his new job as a high school teacher — to tell the truth. But the story isn’t just about them; the film is full of excellent performances, especially from Plummer, who all but steals the show with his brilliant, complex interpretation of the tragically flawed Wallace.
Mann, working from a script he co-wrote with Eric Roth, expertly captures all the casual details of life in a newsroom, and he handles Wigand’s domestic difficulties with just the right degree of subtlety. Most directors would throw in some highly theatrical speeches between husband and wife, but it’s what goes unsaid here that packs the biggest punch. The Insider is that rarest of treats: a morality tale, told with uncompromising sensitivity, that actually embodies a clear moral vision.