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Within the Media Monster: 'The Insider'

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Monday, Mar 4, 2013
The Insider remains a cracker jack thriller. It's the All the President's Men of Big Tobacco.
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The Insider (Blu-ray)

Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Debi Mazer

(Touchstone Pictures; US DVD: 19 Feb 2013)

They say money changes everything. While true, it might be easier to say that the dollar is dictator, ruling the world in a way that few can fully comprehend. From company entities censuring their employees tweets to marketing aimed at misleading and misdirecting the consumer, the climb to greater financial gain, especially within the corporate setting , has been the boon and bane of post-modern America. As a microcosm of this concept, as an indictment of all decisions made over coins, not concern, Michael Mann’s masterful The Insider shows how CBS News, and it’s bottom line dwelling lawyers, tried to stifled the story of tobacco industry whistleblower Dr. Jeffrey Wigand. The focus of a famous 60 Minutes expose, the film highlights all levels of the attack, turning the subject and his producer pal Lowell Bergman into targets of subterfuge and smear campaigns.
  
When a mysterious package containing damning information on the levels of nicotine, and the manipulation of same by Big Tobacco, lands on Bergman’s (Al Pacino) desk, it’s time to find an expert to confirm and explain the data. Enter Dr. Wigand (Russell Crowe) who confirms what many believe - that the CEOs of this major corporations perjured themselves in front of Congress when testifying about their knowledge of smoking’s dangers. Bringing the story to 60 Minutes, and his main collaborator, Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), he is met with skepticism and concern.


The biggest problem? Wigand has a iron clad confidentiality agreement with his previous employer, Brown and Williamson, and breaking it (say, for an interview or extended story) would cause great liability exposure to the network. As Bergman tries to appease an increasing paranoid source, Big Tobacco steps in, stirring the pot and making Wigand’s private and professional life miserable. Eventually, it’s a showdown between CBS executives and the people they hire to find and flesh out the news.


For a film that revolves around information, the secreting of same, and the legal loopholes jumped through to get one of the more important news stories ever on the air, The Insider (new to Blu-ray) remains a cracker jack thriller. It’s the All the President’s Men of Big Tobacco, a sobering look at how far some dangerous businesses will go to keep their obviously offensive practices and procedures in tow. What we learned from Wigand and the 60 Minutes story is that companies like Phillip Morris and Brown and Williamson not only knew that nicotine was addictive and that cigarettes were deadly, but that they manipulated the former to increase its grip on its customers. They then lied and legitimized their “crime” in front of the entire Federal Government while spending millions of dollars in legal fees defending itself in several sensationalized State court battles. Within this conspiracy of fraud, Bergman, Wigand, and Wallace (to some extent) found themselves as pawns, played out against the backdrop of boardrooms, bureaucracies, and the battle for bigger profits. 


It’s an intriguing story, made even more fascinating by director Michael Mann’s post-modern neon skyline approach. A visually arresting filmmaker, he never lets the main thrust of his film get lost in a haze of haunting visuals or stylized sequences. Instead, he gets three great actors to step up and steer the material toward the very edge of your seat. Pacino is all piss and fire, while Plummer plays Wallace like a man trying to (unsuccessfully) walk the very fine line between dedicated investigative journalist and CBS employee. Both men bring out the best in each other, lighting up sequences of long form legalese with their performance energy. But it’s Crowe whose the real star here. Dropping his boring bravado for a more quiet concern, he plays Wigand like a man plagued by the place he’s been put in. You can literally seen the burden on his face and across his back. This is a man drowning, and there’s no guarantee that Bergman and his media masters will save him.


Like any good mystery and denouement, Mann keeps us invested. He jumps around a bit, going from Wigand’s dilemma (disrupted family life, eventual smear campaign target) to Bergman’s fading faith in his bosses. One of the best sequences finds Plummer and Philip Baker Hall as 60 Minutes overseer Don Hewitt taking on Pacino over his defiance. It’s a simple scene - three men talking about the consequences of their planned actions. But as the tensions increase and sides are taken, we are swept away in a clever cinematic combination of acting and direction. As with much of the movie, Mann creates suspense by laying out the legitimate claims of both sides. Though we know the eventual outcome (60 Minutes finally aired the Wigand piece, to much fanfare…and criticism), The Insider still finds ways to keep the conclusion an artistic uncertainty.


Nominated for several Academy Awards upon release, this remains one of the great American corporate horror stories of all time. For anyone who works in a controversial industry, or is in possession of knowledge that would destroy the complex company facade put on by same, The Insider is a slap in the face. It argues that even the greatest, most arrogant news program in the history of TV would gladly bow to pressures both internal and external to avoid paying out in a lawsuit (as mentioned, a documentary on Vietnam and General William C. Westmoreland had provided more than enough embarrassment - and fiscal dismay - to the news division) while throwing valuable contacts and contributors under the bus. Of course, it all worked out in the end, and research shows that all the parties involved survived to thrive within today’s media machine.


But the truth remains that money does indeed change everything. It dictates direction and possible outcomes. The Insider may be nothing more than a boasting behind the scenes of one of TV’s longest running watchdogs, but at times, it feels like more than that. In fact, it often plays like a mirror on who we are as a nation. We love it when the bad guys get it. Getting to said comeuppance, however, can be very tricky indeed - especially when the enemy is flush with cash…and the possibility of much, much more.


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