The Insider

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Heroes, Victims, Heavies, Patsies
some standpoints, it’s astonishing that Hollywood has spent nearly 100
years telling stories to a large public and managed to miss, largely or entirely,
so many of the great issues and movements that have occupied headlines and transformed
public life during the past century. But then, just when you’re about to
bemoan that neglect and wonder why we can’t have a more culturally engaged
cinema, you run up against a film like Michael Mann’s The Insider, which
reminds you of an uncomfortable reality: as a means of examining large, complex
events, movies are far less capable and satisfactory than books, print journalism
or even good tv journalism.

I want to be fair to The
because, though I consider it a largely unsuccessful film, it seems
bound to inspire reactions that will run to extremes of overstatement. On one
hand, it bids fair to join American Beauty as the middlebrow succes d’estime
of the year to date; with its furiously important air and brace of topical concerns
and recognizable media faces, it’s virtually assured various Oscar nominations
as well as the hosannas of many mainstream pundits. On the other hand, detractors
may simply jeer at its pretensions and windy excesses without bothering to ponder
its essential problems, which, to me, are worth more scrutiny and discussion
than the Big Issues the film fumblingly engages.

The Insider derives
from a 1996 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner titled "The Man
Who Knew Too Much." Even a superficial comparison of the movie and its
source suggests a lot about the peculiarities of the cinematic version. Brenner’s
piece tells the story of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe in the
film), a fired Brown & Williamson science executive who entered a years-long
legal, personal and journalistic ordeal when he turned on his former employers
and began to reveal some of Big Tobacco’s dirty little secrets. In the
Vanity Fair account, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino in the film), a 60
producer who tried to get Wigand’s story out, is only one of
many supporting characters. In Mann’s handling, Wigand’s story becomes
the story of Wigand and Bergman–the singular "Man Who…" slyly
transmuting into that cleverly ambiguous Insider–which also involves
conjoining the issue of Big Tobacco with that of Corporate Journalistic Ethics.

Granted, Brenner’s
story touches on many topics other than Big Tobacco and its nefarious ways with
apostates. But the question is still worth asking: Why trade her story’s
single-character and (essentially) single-issue focus for a dual-track approach?
I can imagine the answer Mann might give to this, just as I can imagine the
agreement it would get from various editorialists and theory types. Any big
public issue like tobacco, they would say, is wholly intertwined with and dependent
upon the way it’s represented in the media. Indeed, any such story effectively
has two subjects: the issue and its trajectory through the politicized
realm of media. To a point, I not only buy this argument but applaud its realism.

Yet it leaves out something
crucial. Transparently, the reason Brenner’s story has been transposed
in this particular way is to give The Insider, in the figures
of Bergman and Pacino respectively, a hero and a star. This is another kind
of realism, the commercial kind, and its frustrations evoke age-old complaints.
Are movies really so simpleminded that they can’t dispense with the device
of a hero? Is a big star an irreplaceable component of any serious, large-scale
film? Maybe the answer’s a grudging yes in both cases. But if we grant
those concessions, surely we expect something big in return: a dramatic grasp
of the story’s essential elements, a viewpoint and a result that use filmic
contrivances to serve the greater truth, rather than vice versa.

Because, in any film that
invokes media ethics, the film’s own ethical dimension must be conspicuously
superior or its arguments will be as precariously perched as a house built on
sand. This is precisely where The Insider’s basic weaknesses lie.
In castigating 60 Minutes’ handling of the Wigand matter, it wants
us to believe that its own vision is clearer, its own representations freer
of compromise and influence, and I don’t buy that for a second.

Failure in such cases is
often a matter of degree or emphasis, and you get a clear sense of The Insider’s
impending dubiousness in its opening minutes. Among the many small ways tv esthetics
have invaded and debased those of film is the increasing use in movies of tv-like
"teasers," brief prologues that provide an initial burst of energy
or a foretaste of the dramatic crux (see American Beauty, among many
others). The Insider opens in Lebanon in a rush of speeding cars and
spine-chilling danger. A motorcade bears Bergman to the lair of a Hezbollah
leader, a dark prince of terrorists. With menace looming all around, the cellphone-bearing
producer negotiates an interview with the shadowy sheik, and he does it solo,
with expert aplomb and steady-eyed cool. Cut to a few days later. Mike Wallace
(Christopher Plummer) arrives to do the interview. But the mood’s now no
longer one of danger. Technicians scurry around and Wallace is additionally
buffered by self-regard, obviously caring more about camera angles than Uzis.

Looking back on this episode,
you have to notice one thing: it has nothing to do with what the movie’s
supposedly about
. Hezbollah may be guilty of many things but to my knowledge
its crimes do not include supplying America with tar and nicotine. Of course,
the teaser is meant to establish an aura of big events and to tell us something
about Bergman’s job and professional grit. But it implicitly does much
more than that. By leaving Big Tobacco out of the picture entirely, it subtly
establishes that the main subject here is the Media, and that any particular
Issue addressed will be subordinate. It likewise signals that the drama’s
ultimate battle will pit heroic Bergman, the producer with the nerves of James
Bond, against fusty, vain Mike Wallace, the superstar corporate lackey. (It’s
now well-known that this opening episode originally had a moment when Bergman,
in the heat of his dangerous negotiations, gets a call from Wallace demanding
luxury hotel digs in Lebanon.)

But I err in saying the
Media. The real subject here is Television, with which Americans are presumed
to be obsessively fascinated, enough so to give any movie that foregrounds it
an immediate cachet of significance. In effect, The Insider belongs to
a long line of movies, including the likes of Network and Quiz Show,
which score critical points by deriding the younger medium from an assumed but
unearned position of thoughtful superiority, a stance that often seems to veil
an odd mix of jealousy and bruised self-importance. Nor is it incidental that
The Insider’s one nugget of revelation–that your idol Mike
Wallace has feet of clay–is at once flashy, celebrity-centric and shrewdly
self-serving: in providing the foil needed to make Bergman’s heroics shine
that much brighter, it also poses Michael Mann as the arbiter of 60 Minutes

And what of Big Tobacco?
Well, movies weighty with significance often depend on messages of staggering
obviousness or redundancy. You may have heard, for example, that "the Holocaust
was bad": Hollywood is still hawking that looming truism as if it were
the morning’s news. Now we learn that "Big Tobacco is nasty."
But seriously: no Hollywood movie wants to put us in a position where we actually
have to think, to puzzle out the complexities of an emotional issue like tobacco.
And indeed The Insider doesn’t invite us to see the current tobacco
wars as a circus of hypocrisies–where is Tom Wolfe when you need
him?–in which phonies like Rep. Henry Waxman grandstand shamelessly and
squadrons of state-house Bolivars crusade to soak the beleaguered tobacco industry
for billions, a hefty percentage of which will go straight into the pockets
of their own lawyerly class. (Why not simply outlaw tobacco? Obviously: that
would deprive the lawyerly of the financial and publicity windfalls they are
currently wallowing in.)

After that curious trip
to Lebanon, The Insider spends most of its first hour-plus (the overlong
whole weighs in at a puffy two and a half hours) following Wigand, who’s
played by Crowe as a walking peptic ulcer in a gray thatch wig. At first he’s
living in a white suburban manse with the perfect society wife (Diane Venora)
and a pair of cute little girls. Having signed a confidentiality agreement with
Brown & Williamson, and keen to keep his generous severance package with
its topflight medical benefits, he’s no bomb-thrower. But after he begins
interpreting documents from another company as an expert consultant, weird things
begin happening and his slide into personal disarray commences. He’s followed,
he gets death threats. He moves into a smaller house and acquires professional
security. His marriage begins to fray. If you’ve seen Silkwood,
you know the basic drill: a mix of principle, paranoia and shadowy pursuers.

Let’s just allow,
to get it out of the way, that Big Tobacco really is nasty and would hound a
guy like Wigand to shut him up. Still, the film is remarkably vague and uneven
in the way it portrays Wigand. In this, it partly mirrors Brenner’s article,
which relates that B&W’s minions assembled a 500-page set of charges
against Wigand, yet doesn’t assert that these accusations are all false
and trumped up so much as it creates the impression that most of them
probably are. In The Insider such sketchiness also comes across
as dramatic bungling. When, for example, late in the game we learn that Wigand
had a previous wife and child from which he’s problematically estranged,
it leaves the uncomfortable sense that we haven’t understood much about
the guy from the get-go. The movie would like him to be the Hero, but he patently
isn’t, so it drafts Bergman into that part and assigns Wigand another popular,
if less glamorous, role: the Victim/Martyr. But even there he looks awkward,
like a man wearing someone else’s suit.

Given that the film has
such problems dramatizing the evils of Big Tobacco and the character of Wigand,
it’s perhaps unavoidable that the tale’s moral chess match would get
moved over to 60 Minutes. Yet this is where ethics become a big issue
and where the film’s own become a bit suspect. Here’s the nub of the
matter: 60 Minutes has a whistle-blowing interview with Wigand that the
show unprecedentedly decides not to air after network lawyers claim that it
could provoke a lawsuit for "tortious interference," i.e., a charge
by B&W that CBS induced Wigand to break the law to which his confidentiality
agreement bound him. According to the film, there’s something else behind
this move: CBS bigs fear that such a lawsuit could jeopardize a merger deal
with Westinghouse that’s currently in the works. The film elides, however,
another point that Brenner’s article puts far more emphasis on: at the
same time as the Westinghouse deal, Lorillard, a tobacco company owned by CBS
chairman Laurence Tisch, was angling to buy six discount cigarette brands owned
by Brown & Williamson (it eventually succeeded)!

Brenner makes it clear
that the 60 Minutes gang, in trying to figure out the corporate pressure
on them over Wigand, knew about the Westinghouse deal and didn’t know about
the Lorillard. Mann would probably cite that as his reason for not delving into
the latter. But it’s worth pointing out that Lorillard had become, in Brenner’s
words, "an immense cash bonanza for the Loews Corporation–the parent
company controlled by Tisch and his brother, Robert–earning approximately
$700 million a year." This couldn’t be the same Loews Corp. that operates
the Loews movie theater chain, could it? And that couldn’t have anything
to do with why Mann doesn’t go after Larry Tisch and his son Andrew, the
then-chairman of Lorillard, but rather targets Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes
producer Don Hewitt, who are made to seem like spineless, equivocating chumps
next to Bergman’s tower of rectitude and outraged integrity?

I’m not trying to
frame my own federal indictment here so much as trying to suggest two things:
First, movies are mostly inept when it comes to dealing with such sprawling,
real-life subjects; they too easily reduce everything to Heroes and Victims,
Heavies and Patsies, squashing all complexity while convincing the gullible
that they’re getting the ennobling Truth rather than the same old shadow
play in topical guise. Second, at the root of The Insider is a very cheap
and ultimately self-serving form of cynicism about the media. Do I believe everything
that 60 Minutes says? Of course not. But do I trust Mike Wallace and
Don Hewitt more than I would Larry Tisch or, for that matter, Jeff Wigand? You
bet I do. As for the notion of taking lessons on journalistic ethics from Michael
Mann, the creator of Miami Vice: give me a break. The idea’s absurd
enough to give Robert Altman the grist for a series of acridly disruptive satires.