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Smoke: Al Pacino is a 60 Minutes producer, Russell Crowe an ex-tobacco executive, in The Insider.Photo: courtesy of Touchstone Pictures

The Insider begins with a man, 60 minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), being whisked blindfolded in a car to a secret powwow with an Islamic terrorist. Bergman is there to set the stage for a forthcoming interview with Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), and he’s in his element: Boasting of the “integrity” of 60 Minutes, he’s a muckraking freewheeler par excellence. When Wallace finally comes on the scene, Bergman pampers and cajoles him as if he were a diva. The film appears to be saying: Forget the Hezbollah, this guy can handle Mike Wallace.

The real terrorist in the film is, of course, Big Tobacco; this prologue in Lebanon is like a featherweight preliminary bout before the main bone-crusher event. Early on, Bergman’s stage-managing is intercut with unrelated scenes depicting the abrupt departure of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) as chief of research at Brown & Williamson, the nation’s third-largest tobacco company. (Wigand was fired as a probable consequence of his outspoken in-house concerns about the product’s health risks.) Like gunslingers at high noon, these two men are fated to meet – except, of course, they end up slinging for the same side. Bergman at first is interested in Wigand’s expertise in deciphering a load of clandestine tobacco-related documents, but he quickly sizes up the racked, somnolent scientist as the “ultimate insider” who can, with careful coaxing, deliver a whopping scoop for CBS and, incidentally, become the point man in the war against the tobacco industry. (He became the key witness in legal action taken by seven states seeking reimbursement of Medicaid expenses for smoking-related illnesses.)

With its big, gleaming righteousness and gangster-movie undertow, The Insider is like an elongated cross between Silkwood or All the President’s Men and the sort of hyperbolic, noirish stylefests peculiar to its director, Michael Mann (Thief, Heat, TV’s Miami Vice). As a filmmaker, he’s a lot like Lowell Bergman here – driven and messianic, and hammy. The fact-based story he’s telling, derived primarily from Marie Brenner’s 1996 Vanity Fair piece “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” is essentially in the standard ripped-from-the-headlines glamorama-Hollywood-thriller mode, but he gives it a doomy largeness. We’re on a holy crusade here, with a full house of tormented souls and ogres and ordinary people made extraordinary by a higher calling.

As substantial a subject as Big Tobacco is for The Insider, the lying and evasions of Brown & Williamson aren’t its real meat. Neither is the humiliating backdown of 60 Minutes, which initially nixed the full airing of a damning interview between Wallace and Wigand for fear of being massively sued by B&W – and also, perhaps, for fear of derailing an impending sale of CBS to Westinghouse. (The interview finally aired on February 4, 1996, after much of Wigand’s testimony was already a matter of public record following a suit against the tobacco companies, and after the New York Times and Wall Street Journal had detailed the cave-in at CBS.) The film’s real subject, instead, is how the stakes have become so high in modern corporate culture that the whistleblowers end up playing by the same rules as the ones being whistled at. They all kowtow to the same greenback god.

Except for a chosen few, of course. Bergman rages against his superiors at CBS to get the incriminating interview aired while Wigand, his life a scary funk of harassment and recrimination, is left twisting in the wind. These two are portrayed as temperamentally opposite yet united by a passion for payback. Bergman, his hair blow-dry-shaggy in a most uncorporate way, still trails fumes of his counterculture past as a writer for Ramparts; he’s the last best hope of his generation, and when the creator and executive producer of 60 Minutes, Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall), accuses him of being a “fanatic, an anarchist,” the sanctification is complete. Bergman is enough of a political animal to respect compromise, but his vainglory is that, when the screws are put to him, he refuses to back down.

Mann and his co-screenwriter, Eric Roth, are so busy propping up Bergman as an authentic hero out of his time that about halfway through this 155-minute movie, they lose sight of Wigand’s story, which, at least the way it’s been done here, is more emotionally complex, if less flamboyant. Al Pacino gives a real showboat performance, with full-body shimmies and burning stares and foursquare speeches, and Mann makes everything even more florid by positioning the actor against wide-screen, Valhalla-size backdrops as the overwrought soundtrack swells. (In one dark-lit long shot, Bergman stands knee-high in the ocean as he converses with a distraught Wigand on his cell phone).

By contrast, Wigand is a stolid sufferer for much of the movie, but Russell Crowe gives him a seething core. With his hair lightened and thinned for the role, and a paunch added, Crowe is hardly recognizable from the bully-boy cop he played in L.A. Confidential. Wigand may have believed himself to be a man of science who could devise a “safe” cigarette, but he also wasn’t above self-aggrandizement; as Marie Brenner wrote, “It is conceivable that B&W had sized Wigand up psychologically. He surely appeared to be highly ambitious, money-hungry, a potential captive to the firm.” What gives The Insider its power, despite all the glossiness and excess, is that Wigand’s dispossession and retribution come across as a key drama for our corporate-circus times. For Wigand, the price of reform is catastrophic. Testifying against B&W, he enters a night-world where his family is endangered and everything becomes commodified, including himself; he’s a potential ratings-grabber for CBS until the network figures out it has more to lose than to gain from his appearance. Even iron-faced Mike Wallace – splendidly played by Plummer, with each syllable honed to a cutting edge – doesn’t stand up for him. (Later, according to the film, Wallace sees the light.)

At one point, Bergman tells Wigand, “We’re running out of heroes. Guys like you are in short supply,” and the line has a hollow ring because it seems to come out of a movie about old-style heroism, and what we have with Wigand is something new. (Bergman’s heroics, as depicted here, are something old.) Wigand’s rage at B&W is more about pride than about doing good; if the company, after terminating him, hadn’t insulted him by pressing for a more severe confidentiality agreement, he probably would have clammed up forever. Wigand as a hero feels right to us, more contemporaneous, precisely because, for a long time, he doesn’t act on principle. He acts on pique and fear and gall. And yet he seems stunned – hollowed out – by his betrayal at the hands of B&W, and then again by CBS. This ultimate insider becomes the ultimate outsider. We’re accustomed to the bland facelessness of the Corporate Man, but this film gives that anonymity a darker twist: When the first, bowdlerized 60 Minutes show is aired, Wigand sees himself being sound-bited on TV with his face blanked out and his voice patterns disguised. What should be his coming-out party is instead a sick joke, a further retreat into nowheresville.

It’s a good thing Wigand isn’t a conventional, come-to-the-rescue hero in The Insider, because, although Michael Mann tries for a victory dance, there’s ultimately little cause for cheer. A few good men here got out with their honor intact, but Big Tobacco is still Big: In September, the Justice Department, after five years and millions of dollars spent, acknowledged that its criminal investigation of the tobacco industry was closed, opting instead for a civil lawsuit accusing the companies of racketeering and fraud. “It was a case,” a Justice Department official was quoted in the Times as saying, “that the criminal division decided it was not likely to win.” This is the real-world backdrop against which the righteous theatrics of The Insider play themselves out. It’s a world in which there are many whistleblowers and yet the tune remains pretty much the same.

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