The Insider (1999) – Michael Mann takes on Big Tobacco

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The Insider is that rare Michael Mann film where there are no criminals, informants, shoot-outs and heist sequences that characterized some of his high-octane crime thrillers like Thief, Heat and Collateral. The only time a bullet appears in the film is when it is placed inside the mailbox of one of the characters, and that’s about it. It has, however, criminals and informants of a different kind: evil corporations and their former employees. It also contains a sustained level of suspense that is present in the aforementioned crime thrillers of Mann. And this time, the role of the investigators are played by journalists instead of detectives. It’s based on a Vanity Fair article written by Lowell Bergman, a producer who used to work on the show 60 Minutes for CBS.

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The film tells the true story of a whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), who was formerly the Vice President of Research and Development at a major tobacco company called Brown and Williamson. Wigand was fired from the company after he disagreed with some of the methods they employed to make their cigarettes more addictive. Wigand is cautioned by his boss to not reveal anything about the inner workings of the company and is forced to sign a confidentiality agreement. When Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), the producer of a CBS’s show 60 Minutes crosses paths with Wigand, he learns that he has
some vital information to reveal. Bergman manages to convince Wigand to tape an interview for 60 minutes. When Brown and Williamson comes to know about this, they are desperate to prevent this by whatever means necessary.

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There are two central conflicts in the film – one between Wigand and Brown and Williamson and the other between Bergman and CBS. To protect themselves, Brown and Williamson first threaten Wigand and his family. On hearing this, Bergman arranges to provide 24-hr security for him and his family. Then they begin a smear campaign to discredit Wigand in front of the public. Morever, they manage to get the state of Kentucky to issue a gag order on him. Meanwhile, the escalating pressure on CBS from another corporation forces them to cancel the airing of the interview. Bergman finds out that the reason for this is an impending merger of CBS with a corporation called Westinghouse. This puts him at odds with CBS, just as how things turned out between Wigand and his former employer.

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The film is a riveting conspiracy thriller in the same vein as All the President’s Men or Good Night and Good Luck, and is driven by the outstanding performances of it’s two primary leads. Russell Crowe followed up the success of his breakout performance in  L.A Confidential with a significantly different and near unrecognizable performance here as Jeffrey Wigand. And do I have to really mention how good Pacino is? He rocks in every scene he is in. And also praise-worthy is Christopher Plummer’s role as CBS journalist Mike Wallace. Mann directs the film with an assured hand. It’s as stylish as all his other films and features all his usual trademarks. It’s one of his best films.

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