The Insider Movie Review

Listen up! A movie adapted from a magazine article about the making of a four-year old segment of a television program: Does this pitch have you hooked yet? No? Well, despite a potentially dry-as-dust premise, The Insider manages to rise above its inherent limitations and provides a compelling look inside the politics of 60 Minutes and the tobacco industry.

They say you should never see two things being made: Sausage and legislation. Add journalism to that list. I've been in this racket long enough to know that objectivity is painfully lacking in the places you expect to find it the most. Backroom deals make strange bedfellows of interest-conflicted parties (e.g. Time-Warner owns Entertainment Weekly magazine, which reviews Warner Bros. films, etc.) So when 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Pacino) decided to do a story about the hazards of cigarettes in 1996, he found himself embroiled in controversy.

Central to that controversy was Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe), a VP with Brown & Williamson, the #3 tobacco company in the U.S. Just-fired and full of rage, Wigand "blew the whistle" on B&W, and after much haranguing, he told a tale of the hazards of smoking - and the fact that the tobacco companies knew about those hazards - to Mike Wallace (Plummer) and 60 Minutes.

But before the segment could air, B&W threatened legal action against all the parties, Wigand became the subject of a vicious smear campaign, his wife left him, he basically went nuts, and Bergman started to feel responsible for ruining Wigand's life - all with nothing to show for it, because CBS top brass refused to air the interview.

Add in the impending sale of CBS to Westinghouse, and you're staring into a morass of journalistic dishonesty and a legal migraine.

That any of this makes interesting filmmaking is a genuine surprise, and with a running time close to 3 hours, it's even more amazing that my attention was held throughout. Mann, last seen directing Heat, is certainly unnecessarily long-winded throughout the movie, but some stellar performances keep The Insider going strong. It goes without saying that Pacino burns in his role, but it's Crowe who deserves the real praise as the falling-apart Wigand. Think Oscar nomination; he deserves it.

Christopher Plummer does an amazing impression of Mike Wallace, and also of note is Bruce McGill, as a Mississippi D.A., who has about five minutes of amazing screen time.

The funny thing about The Insider is that Wigand's story is not the most interesting part of the film. It is at first, but Mann (wisely) eventually directs the story back to CBS, with focus on the wrangling within its corporate hierarchy about whether to run the interview. Why? Because the "danger of smoking" is really old news. Philip Morris's recent admission that smoking causes cancer is a further sign that this whole debate might be beating a dead horse.

Stick that in your pipe.

Livin' la vida smoka'.


The Insider Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 1999


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