November 5, 1999
FILM REVIEW; Mournful Echoes of a Whistle-Blower
By JANET MASLIN
Late in ''The Insider'' the tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand sits despondently in a hotel room and contemplates the steep price of what he has done. The setting is somber except for the bright pastoral mural on the wall behind him, looking like a window onto an unsullied, unattainable world. Then the image begins to roil and morph, and it turns into a vision of the home and family that Mr. Wigand has lost. This is a flashy visual effect, but it's also one that piercingly captures the man's state of mind. And although Michael Mann is a filmmaker whose stylistic brio has a way of overpowering his subject matter, this time he strikes a balance, and he gets it right.
Mr. Mann has directed ''The Insider'' with a pulse-quickening panache that heightens the tensions within its story. In describing Mr. Wigand's progress from a staid corporate existence into a risky and unpredictable one, the film entails both visual and moral vertigo. Once Hollywood had a favorite folk tale: that the lone truth teller battling political or corporate evil would triumph, however bitterly, when the facts became known. But in the chillingly contemporary world of ''The Insider'' it's not that simple. Almost every character in the story is compromised by business considerations. And in the film's vision of television news reporting, moral relativism is a big part of playing the game.
The film centers on CBS's ''60 Minutes'' and does the kind of muckraking that would ordinarily be that program's own province. The connection between CBS and Mr. Wigand's revelations -- that the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company knew that cigarette smoking was addictive even as it sought new ways to make nicotine deliver more of a kick -- is a producer named Lowell Bergman.
In the film Mr. Bergman keeps a portrait of Cesar Chavez on display, mentions that Herbert Marcuse was his mentor (''major influence on the New Left in the 1960's'') and otherwise calls attention to his political credentials. ''How did a radical journalist from Ramparts magazine wind up at CBS?'' he is asked. He replies modestly: ''I still do the tough stories. '60 Minutes' reaches a lot of people.''
The film's casting stacks the deck to lionize Mr. Bergman, even while that casting also makes for dramatic fireworks. Christopher Plummer does an acute Mike Wallace impersonation, summoning all the mannerisms familiar to television audiences, including Mr. Wallace's canny way of listening. And Russell Crowe, a subtle powerhouse in his wrenching evocation of Mr. Wigand, takes on the thick, stolid look of the man he portrays.
On the other hand, Mr. Bergman is glamorized into a crusading Al Pacino and becomes the only beacon of rectitude to be found here. But ''The Insider'' is a movie about shadows, not absolutes. And it would have reached deeper if its Mr. Bergman weren't so self-righteous a hero.
''The Insider,'' as written by Eric Roth (''Forrest Gump'') and Mr. Mann, suspensefully lays out the facts of its story. It begins as Mr. Wigand surreptitiously reveals what he has learned as a chemist for Brown & Williamson: its cigarettes are designed to deliver an extra-quick fix of nicotine despite obvious health risks. Sensing that Mr. Wigand may be a loose cannon, the company's chief executive (played commandingly by Michael Gambon) binds Mr. Wigand to a strict confidentiality agreement.
But as the pressure on him begins to mount, Mr. Wigand finds his situation becoming intolerable. ''Can you imagine,'' he asks Diane Venora, as the wife who will soon be walking out on him, ''me coming home from some job and feeling good at the end of the day?''
Along comes ''60 Minutes,'' with promises to give Mr. Wigand's charges a public airing, but with too much corporate baggage to let that happen. ''The Insider'' offers an account of how the program wound up sidestepping the confidentiality agreement to interview Mr. Wigand and exposing him to threats of retaliation, only to bail out on running the interview when it ran afoul of CBS's larger interests. What emerge as controversial here are not the facts themselves but the ways in which ''The Insider'' uses docudrama ethics to draw its close-up views of CBS's inner workings.
The movie is about telling the truth, and yet at times it seems manipulative itself, as when it presents Mr. Wallace confessing his innermost thoughts about his career and reputation.
This venerable television star could have been captured just as fully in the scene that finds him venting outrage at Gina Gershon's smooth corporate lawyer. ''Mike?'' he thunders when she addresses him. ''Mike? Try Mr. Wallace.''
''The Insider'' is still sleek, gripping entertainment with a raw-nerved, changeable camera style that helps to amplify its meaning. So what if, when Mr. Bergman finds himself feeling betrayed and alone, he happens to be standing in the turquoise waters of some tropical hideaway? And so what if when the Wigand story pushes him to the edge, the film visualizes this picturesquely as the Gulf Coast of Mississippi?
There are stunningly evocative images here, like perilous nighttime scenes at a golf driving range and in the Wigand backyard, with dramatic meaning only heightened by their obvious beauty. This is the kind of movie in which Mr. Bergman can make a phone call and reach somebody who happens to be in the cockpit of a Lear Jet. Thanks to the dazzling cinematography of Dante Spinotti (whose other Mann films include ''Heat'' and ''The Last of the Mohicans'') visual interest is not a problem.
''The Insider,'' by far Mr. Mann's most fully realized and enthralling work, features brief, sharply etched performances from Bruce McGill as a Mississippi prosecutor raging in a courtroom, Lindsay Crouse as Mr. Bergman's wife and Philip Baker Hall as the ''60 Minutes'' executive who labels Mr. Bergman an anarchist and a fanatic. Each of these characters contributes memorably to the film's troubling resolution and to Mr. Bergman's verdict on the emblematic crisis within ''The Insider.'' As he puts it regretfully, ''What got broken here doesn't go back together again.''
An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others. ~ James Madison, Federalist No. 48, February 1, 1788
Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.
Every individual human being has a claim to a useful and just state, which secures freedom of the individual as well as the good of the whole.
An end in terror is preferable to terror without end. ~ The White Rose, 1942-43