movie review by
David Ng


[click on photos
for larger versions]

Web sites:

Web site:

The Insider
Jeffrey Wigand and Lowell Bergman, the characters played by Russell Crowe and Al Pacino in Michael Mann's The Insider, have nothing in common except for an irrational commitment to integrity in industries notorious for their dishonesty. Those industries are tobacco and journalism. But the bureacratic battles that consume the two protagonists are a backdrop for this nearly three-hour character study. What Mann wants us to notice in addition to all the complicated legal maneuverings are the small details: the way Wigand (Crowe) seems to always reach for a drink, the ferocity with which Bergman (Pacino) paces his office, and perhaps most subtley, the chilliness of Wigand's perfect suburban household compared to the frumpy warmth of Bergman's broken, extended family. ("Two kids. One is mine, one his hers. Everyone uses a different name," he explains.) The Insider succeeds at both levels, as a complicated thriller concerned with large scale machinations, and as the intimate story of two mavericks whose mannerisms say everything about them.

Mann and co-writer Eric Roth couldn't have picked a more engrossing story than Jeffrey Wigand's battle with his former employer, tobacco behemoth Brown & Williamson, and his subsequent skirmish with the CBS News show 60 Minutes. Because the moral good and bad is so unmistakably clear, the screenplay has latitude to shade each side with doubt and confusion. And the supposed moral middle ground, journalism, becomes the most complex sphere of power: is 60 Minutes a trustworthy institution that keeps the promises it makes to its informants, or in the words of Mike Wallace (the excellent Chistopher Plummer), is it just a business that devours and regurgitates people's lives for the sake of info-tainment? When good and evil clash on journalism's uneven grounds, the ensuing bloodshed is a magnificent display of ego-drenched mania.

And yet, there isn't anything about Wigand's story that bristles with originality. It's a standard whistle-blower yarn. When Bergman enlists Wigand as a consultant on a routine 60 Minutes segment about the tobacco industry, he uncovers foul play that only Wigand can confirm. The rest of the movie follows a predictable path of revelation followed by betrayal followed by redemption. But Mann's unparalleled execution lifts the story out of its genre and gives it an unconventional rythym. The experience is often times unsettling. The majority of the film is shot in close-ups. Faces become virtual landscapes of curmudgeonly grist. Sometimes the faces are left deliberately unfocused, as if the camera didn't have time to catch up with the reality unfolding before it. The editing doesn't follow any conventional rules either. It jumps freely between Wigand and Bergman before we've been introduced to them. Even the musical score defies convention by combining everything from opera to rock, creating interludes that oscillate between classical beauty and ultra-modern attitude.

The Insider recalls the best movies of Sidney Lumet, the ones that start off as genre exercises but then invent their own pace and style. From Dog Day Afternoon to Serpico to Network, they are each steeped in documentary-like detail, and the details are arranged like small treasures, each one a true discovery. There is a feeling of the now, as though we are really there experiencing everything in real time, unfiltered by the filmmakers. It's politically charged cinema verite that blurs the distinction between movies and news footage. The Insider (along with Mann's previous movie Heat) is a descendant of this style. It takes a complicated story, mines it thoroughly for even the smallest details, and delivers it with unemotional, here's-the-naked-truth brusqueness.

The intimate moments of The Insider are carried by the impressive talents of Al Pacino and Russell Crowe. They make a tremendous acting team. They are on screen together for only a handful of scenes, but like the DeNiro-Pacino rapport in Heat, there's a psychological brotherhood that spans great distances. Crowe is a master of understatement. As Wigand he must play an imperfect hero who has learned to tame his temper. He's smart, but he's also quietly vulnerable. When he must make a choice to go public with his information, the agony is clearly written on his face even though he doesn't articulate it. As Bergman, Pacino is a master of overstatement. He has ample opportunity to shout and foam in his signature style. He also has many quiet scenes in which there is no dialogue, in which facial expressions must say everything. He excels at these too by reducing his extroverted passion into smoldering ashes.

The Insider is an enormous movie in scope and passion. Everything from the convoluted plot twists all the way down to the most minor character breathes with tremendous life. Like Oliver Stone's Nixon, the amount of information thrown at us can be overwhelming. But at the core of all the chaos is an essentially simple story. The Insider never loses site of Wigand or Bergman, and the result is some of the most moving news footage ever made for the movies.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]