***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras D
starring Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora
screenplay by Eric Roth & Michael Mann
directed by Michael Mann
by Bill Chambers "60 Minutes" segment producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) has contacted Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) in his search for a professional to interpret an innocuous book of scientific data on the fire hazards of smoking. Wigand, a chemist who was recently sent packing by cigarette manufacturer Brown & Williamson, incorrectly assumes from Bergman's call that a newshound is after him to break the confidentiality agreement he signed as part of a severance package. Wigand promptly faxes a message back that reads: "Can't talk. Won't talk. Don't want to."
Director Michael Mann's jittery camera seems to stop dead when Bergman realizes that his would-be interpreter has let some sort of cat out of the bag. Pacino doesn't overemphasize the moment--a satisfied grin flits across his face and then he's back in business mode. (After all, Bergman at this point is a detective without a mystery.) They first worked together on Heat, Pacino and Mann, and they make a great team. Mann likes looking at Pacino, and Pacino tries to give Mann something to look at.
The brilliant Crowe extends Mann the same courtesy. Jeffrey Wigand is introduced to us as a husband and loving father of few words. (B&W officially dismissed him for poor people skills.) But a disgruntled nerd lurks beneath the surface, a man prone to hard drinking and violent outbursts. Crowe doesn't call attention to any shift in personality--when Jeffrey's rage first reveals itself to us, during a meeting with his former superiors, it's as if we, not Crowe, were the ones initially repressing Wigand's dark side. And though he changed his hair and diet to play the gray, pudgy doctor, Crowe (hulky Bud White of L.A. Confidential) is an unavoidably imposing physical presence, which adds another layer of tension to his scenes with Pacino: volatile Wigand could mop the floor with Bergman. Mann's genius is to level the playing field by opening the movie with Bergman being escorted blindfolded by armed guards to a meeting with the leader of Hezbollah; anything else is kid's stuff.
Wigand and Bergman team up when B&W's pressure tactics drive the former to blow the whistle. (They've seen him talking to journalists and, like Wigand, assume the worst. The movie is Mann at his most cosmic--most everything that happens in the film is luck.) Countless threats of litigation and murder later, Wigand sits down for veteran TV personality Mike Wallace and discloses the cold hard truth: that he had been hired to make "nicotine delivery devices" more addictive. Their interview is a powerful sequence, one of many to come.
But before the piece on corruption in the tobacco industry has aired, CBS attorneys advise the "60 Minutes" crew to edit out Wigand's contribution. As a third party exposing Jeffrey's secrets--breaking the confidentiality agreement on his behalf--they face a lawsuit so great that 'Big Tobacoo' (the seven major manufacters in the industry) could wind up owning the network. For the first time in the show's history, or at least in Lowell's fourteen-year history with the show, senior producer Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) backs down from a fight, and Wallace joins him--he's too old and tired to stay perched on the soapbox. This plot point was the real Mike Wallace's point of contention with The Insider, a docudrama: he feared the film portrays him as spineless. It does, but it might also be true. A more generous adjective would be cautious.
Bergman, on the other hand, comes off as that rare media species who glows with integrity; to be fair, that might be equally dubious. He's as concerned about his new friend Jeffrey's personal sacrifice going unrewarded as he is the story's impact being softened. (An altered version will simply warn the public that cigarettes are bad for you--not exactly the sort of groundbreaking item that brought "60 Minutes" to fame.) If Lowell is too saintly, in the end, at least Pacino makes quiet confidence and old-fashioned values as compelling as those traits that win Oscars: brooding, anger, remorse, the fidgets--Jeffrey's qualities. Though both actors are award-worthy, no surprise that Crowe's performance was the one to capture the Academy's imagination.
Mann has become a less rigid filmmaker over the years. As co-creator of "Miami Vice", he practically pioneered the pastels and art deco aesthetic of the mid-Eighties. (Back then, his shooting style was often as sterile as his set design.) The tide turned with The Last of the Mohicans--we were no longer voyeurs, we were participants thrown into battle and swept up in period romance. 1995's Heat, in which his characters slam "dead-tech post-modern bullshit" architecture, confirmed that Mann had evolved (no pun intended) into a more elaborate visualist. His love of synth music has remained intact over the years, God bless him: ex-Dead Can Dance frontwoman Lisa Gerrard and synthesist Pieter Bourke provide The Insider with a dreamy, emotionally satisfying score.The Insider's cinematography, by Dante Spinotti, is beautifully gritty and experimental--one memorable, Dardennes-ish shot follows Crowe so closely that his head threatens to knock into the lens. Several unfocused reaction takes feel as if they were captured on the fly, even though they obviously weren't if rumours of Mann's meticulousness and perfectionism are true. The film also bears the most issue-oriented screenplay Mann's worked from yet; had he Hollywood-ed up the presentation, it might have enhanced the story's preachiness for the worse. At last, the importance of Dr. Wigand's ballsy confession has been acknowledged--The Insider is just great moviemaking.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Touchstone brings The Insider to Blu-ray in a gorgeous-hued 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. The picture's teal-and-orange colour scheme was both ahead of its time and quietly influential, though Mann achieved this palette chemically, and the image on this disc has a dynamic range of colour within its two dominant tones that's largely absent from today's DI equivalent. This is also a dark film--unlike Mann's later work, he doesn't seem to want you to see into the shadows; Dante Spinotti's cinematography has an early-'70s Gordon Willis flavour that was dim on DVD where this presentation is contrasty, a layer of fine grain completing the cinematic effect. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio showcases a subdued, dialogue-driven mix that again evokes the golden age of paranoia thrillers, although the Dead Can Dance score has a warmth and depth that's immanently modern. The only extra besides the movie's theatrical trailer is an EPK-style featurette (7 mins.) that's of interest, if at all, for showing what the real Lowell Bergman and Jeffrey Wigand look like--or looked like, circa 1999. Neither supplement has been upgraded to HD, alas.