Two Men Fueled by Stubbornness: ‘The Insider’

Even when Michael Mann falls into bad habits, he makes terrific, passionate procedurals.

Michael Mann is probably best known for his work in the crime genre, with movies and TV shows like Heat, Public Enemies, Manhunter, Collateral, and Miami Vice exploring the atmospheric world of cops, thieves, and killers and the details, sometimes minute, of their haunted lives. But Mann’s eye for detail can also fix upon less bloody professions, as in his 1999 film The Insider (now out on Blu-ray), a journalism procedural about a real-life tobacco industry whistleblower and the 60 Minutes team that coaxes him into giving up confidential information.

Mann’s crime pictures often pit two men on opposite sides of the law against each other. The Insider sets producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and fired tobacco executive Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) on paths toward intersection with a similar long-lead perspective, but here the two men eventually join the same side – with some reluctance, at least on Wigand’s part. Bergman initially reaches out for Wigand’s help decoding some industry documents; Wigand turns out to have far more information about Big Tobacco’s nicotine-fixing habits, but isn’t inclined to break his confidentiality agreement — until the company starts leaning on him harder, trying to threaten him into compliance. This pushes Wigand closer to Bergman’s 60 Minutes team.

The Insider takes us through this process step by step; it’s an hour before any whistles are blown, and we experience plenty of Wigand’s hesitation before and after: over his former employer’s potential for legal action, his family’s safety and security, and the general mess the tobacco industry has the power to make of his life. Though he clearly admires both characters, especially Bergman, Mann doesn’t turn either into a simple hero. Both men — and as such, the story along with them — are fueled, to some extent, by stubbornness. “I don’t like being pushed around,” Wigand says, and the same line could come from Bergman when he clashes with CBS management (and face of 60 Minutes Mike Wallace, played by Christopher Plummer, covering doubt with playful arrogance in an Oscar-nominated performance) over whether they can run the Wigand interview, and he becomes righteously angry in a manner befitting the Pacino persona.

The actor’s balance between shouting fury and world-weariness serves, in retrospect, as an obvious turning point between his more florid ’90s performances and sedate ’00s turns, while Crowe does some of his best work as the troubled Wigand. On one of the disc’s only bonus features, a brief talking-head segment recycled from the old DVD featuring snippets of Pacino, Crowe, and their real-life counterparts discussing their roles, Crowe says the men come from “two different tribes”, and the movie contrasts their backgrounds (entrenched media elite with supportive blended family and vacation house; gun-owning former company man with a mortgage and a tightly wound spouse) without calling too much attention to it. Characters on the journalism side of the story keep repeating phrases like “out in the world” or “in the real world” (they sound not unlike cop slang), trying to reality-check their own idealism.

Shot by semi-regular Mann cinematographer Dante Spinotti, The Insider employs visual motifs, too, most noticeably glass surfaces: reflections in eyeglasses (both Bergman’s sunglasses and Wigand’s oversized spectacles), and recurring shots of people barreling through transparent revolving doors isolate images in their own frames even as those frames remain mostly transparent; Bergman and Wigand are both isolated even when they remain in plain view. The Insider was Mann’s last project shot entirely on film (he began to experiment with digital when making Ali, and switched over entirely for Collateral), and the Blu-ray’s crisp high-definition transfer of these celluloid images is its best feature by far.

Though a visual master, Mann sometimes gets lost in those compositions and luxuriates in his ponderousness, with moody shots of his protagonists staring out car windows and an overemphatic score that lays on choral arrangements as well as some wailing, ’80s-style sax. Another of Mann’s tendencies goes unchecked here: The Insider is set in a very male world, and the movie’s few women don’t have as much room as even the peripheral female roles in movies like Heat. Diane Venora, for example, had a lot more sand as Pacino’s wife in that movie than she does as Crowe’s unsatisfied wife here (she seems to fear for her safety before Wigand even becomes a whistleblower).

Still, even when Mann falls into bad habits, he makes terrific, passionate procedurals. The Insider in particular makes a great case for the other half of his filmography, where the characters aren’t policemen or professional criminals per se, but still pursue each other with relentless, stubborn obsession.

RATING 7 / 10