The Insider (1999)

by Jonathan Beller


What's Inside The Insider?

Michael Mann’s film The Insider is about blowing the lid of conspiracy off the tobacco industry. Although the film is ostensibly about one corporate produced addictive narcotic, that is nicotine, it is really about two, the other one being capital.

In his best role since Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino plays Lowell Bergman, the 60 Minutes producer who, despite having done his graduate work with Herbert Marcuse, goes against the grain of his mentor’s critique of modern society. Marcuse’s subterranean presence in the film (he is reverently invoked by Bergman in an early scene) is significant here because his thesis of repressive tolerance taught, in part, that bourgeois society grants freedom of speech precisely at the moment it can no longer make a difference. In other words, social critique launched from inside capitalist society is strategically absorbed and utilized by it. Pacino’s Bergman, however, challenges this theory. A committed radical journalist with an important job at CBS, he chooses controversial stories; through an investigative journalism he strives to make significant changes by intervening in mainstream media. He is an insider trying to wage radical social change from within the capitalist media system.

cover art

The Insider

Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer

(Touchstone Pictures)

Russell Crowe plays Jeffrey Wigand, the high-level corporate executive who blew the whistle on Brown and Williamson Tobacco and precipitated what became the $236 billion settlement against Big Tobacco. This settlement, the largest class action suit in human or any other known history, in effect signaled Tobacco’s admission to pushing an addictive substance and causing the deaths of a hundred thousand people a year. As a staff scientist, Wigand had first hand knowledge of Brown and Williamson’s deceptive and indeed deadly practices, voiced a difference of opinion with company policy, and found himself fired for “poor communication skills.” The Insider tells the story of how and why he went public with his knowledge. The film makes a point of reminding viewers that before Wigand’s deposition, the “Seven Dwarves,” as seven corporate heads of major tobacco companies were known, swore before congress that they did not believe nicotine was an addictive narcotic.

Since readers probably know the broad outlines of this story — that Tobacco interests suppressed the overwhelming scientific evidence that their product caused cancer (evidence which makes them liable for passing on the costs of dying from smoking to taxpayers and the private sector) — why might you want to see The Insider? I would say precisely because of the questions it raises about the architecture of capitalist society and the corporate regulation of public opinion. The film shows how the manipulation of the twin addictions, to tobacco and to money, create a circuit of profit, deception and death.

It also provides something like a fantasy for viewers who might wonder what it would be like to kick both habits and stand up to big capital and its media. Here the concept of media might be productively extended and understood as on a continuum with drugs and money — mind- and body-altering circulatory pathways which organize human behavior. Most critics would probably say that this film is about character, and it is, but here the characters are defined by bucking the addictive payoffs of quietly going along as cogs in the profit machines. These payoffs — large salaries, big houses, bonuses, etc. — in Wigand’s case include getting to provide for his children’s futures and, it seems, getting to live.

The first half of The Insider shows how Bergman encouraged Wigand to violate his confidentiality contract and record for CBS’s 60 Minutes his insider knowledge of Big Tobacco’s knowing manufacture of “nicotine delivery systems.” Brown and Williamson is portrayed as fully cognizant that it is in the nicotine delivery business. The second half shows how CBS lawyers and top management tried to kill the story in order to protect their own interests. As Wigand tells Bergman, his commitment to bringing down Brown and Williamson comes out of a belief in the ethics of science as truth-finding, in being a “man of science.” Although, given the agenda setting of corporations and the military in scientific research, this distinction is ideologically suspect, it serves to provide a principle against which Tobacco might be judged.

For me, the most poignant scene in the film occurs when Wigand has lost his home, spouse, and family to the enormous pressure of fighting a huge corporation, and 60 Minutes cuts his interview. When this hotel room scene takes place, he hallucinates a wall-sized painting dissolving into a life-size scene of his beautiful children planting their new garden. All of the love he feels for them and all of the loss he has suffered in his pursuit of exposing the tobacco conspiracy takes over the film and for a few moments transforms its expressive texture.

Experientially , this emotive passage, with respect to the rest of the film, is powerful and strange, a quasi-surreal two minutes broken out of the plot. It is as if all of the reasons motivating the action, all of its instrumentality, the battle of wills, laws and rationales, achieve psychologically in Wigand a change of state which, in order to register his profound sorrow, the film affectively transfers to the viewer. Although this is an extremely important moment in the film, it is also clear that its excess of feeling exceeds the exigencies of the fight: if the film remained in this mode or Wigand remained in this psychological state the story could not be told and there would be no story to tell. To fight the battle against corporations, all of this feeling must be made instrumental. The scene is thus interrupted by a cellphone call from Bergman, which reconsolidates the terms of reality and returns the viewer to the realpolitik of capitalism with a piercingly visceral experience of what she or he already knows: in the face of death threats and a smear campaign, Wigand sacrificed his family and himself to record the interview and the interview is suppressed by CBS — an act which in effect puts CBS in cahoots with Tobacco.

The most fascinating scenes in the film are those portraying the operations of the other insider, Bergman. Bergman accusingly points out to CBS management that CBS is being sold to Westinghouse, and that the top brass are expecting million dollar payoffs and thus cave in to Tobacco to protect their stock. Bergman’s power comes from his ability to manipulate, from the inside, the connections which control the mouthpiece of capital, that is, the mass media. His bold physical presence is merely one expression of self for he is always using other media to extend and multiply himself to exercise power across town or across the world. He is himself a medium, outmaneuvering his opponents through a more sophisticated utilization of media pathways.

If nicotine, money, print journalism and television are each seen as providing a logistics of social control, Bergman is a logistical genius. His exercise of his capacity to work the various media networks, to multiply his sites of attack, and to exert social force is the rational equivalent to Wigand’s emotional explosion. A cellphone, a personal connection, an intelligent assistant, a piece of information all become weapons in his hands as he fights CBS’s compliance with big tobacco by working through the FBI, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. This fight is not just for Wigand, or even for journalism with a capital J, it is against the corporate control of information and therefore of public opinion.

Given the film’s foregone conclusion, it would seem that The Insider concludes in favor of Lowell Bergman over Herbert Marcuse: the story gets out, Big Tobacco has to pay, Wigand is vindicated — it is possible to make a difference from the inside. But in the spirit of Marcuse, one might wonder why this story makes such good copy for Touchstone Pictures, and why too, anti-corporate, anti-US government and anti-capitalist media films like JFK (which argues that Kennedy’s assassination was a coup by the military industrial complex), or Forrest Gump (which argues that the only way not to recognize US racism and imperialism is by being preternaturally stupid), or The Matrix (which argues that computers and television create a media-system that precludes the recognition of the general enslavement of humankind), all do so well at the box office. Is an awareness of our own relentless exploitation by corporate America being sold back to us at a profit?

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