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Make the Case: ‘The Insider’ Is About the Cost of Doing What’s Right—and It’s the Best Film of 1999

Throughout the week, The Ringer will highlight some of the year’s best, most interesting films, and in this series, make the case for why a specific movie deserves to be called that year’s best. Next up is Michael Mann’s tense thriller ‘The Insider.’

Adam Villacin

Welcome to 1999 Movies Week, a celebration of one of the best years in film history. Throughout the week, The Ringer will highlight some of the year’s best, most interesting films, and in this series, make the case for why a specific movie deserves to be called that year’s best. Next up is Michael Mann’s tense thriller The Insider.

In November 1999, I went to see Michael Mann’s The Insider in Boston. I sat in the dark for almost three hours, watching Mann’s account of 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman’s efforts to bring the story of tobacco industry whistleblower Dr. Jeffrey Wigand to television screens. I walked out of the theater into what was apparently, according to Weather Underground’s archives, a windy 40-degree Massachusetts day, and then I almost certainly lit a Camel Light, because that is what I did every time I left a movie theater from about 1998 to 2010.

Starring Russell Crowe as Wigand and Al Pacino as Bergman, The Insider is a procedural that would sit nicely in a Netflix carousel next to The China Syndrome, All the President’s Men, Silkwood, and A Civil Action, and subsequent films like Erin Brockovich and Spotlight. These are movies (usually based on true stories) that reckon with righting the scales of justice, the dogged pursuit of the truth, and the public’s right to know about what institutions—corporate, governmental, or otherwise—are doing behind their backs. The fact that I lit up immediately after seeing a movie about how the tobacco industry engineered cigarettes to create a “nicotine delivery business,” in Wigand’s words, does not mean that The Insider somehow failed in getting its point across. It is about a lot of things, but the dangers of smoking is pretty low on the list.

Coming off the modest domestic success of Heat (a movie which has since been canonized at The Ringer), working from a ripped-from-the-headlines screenplay cowritten with Eric Roth (based on Marie Brenner’s 1996 Vanity Fair article), and featuring two of the biggest movie stars in the world (Crowe was coming off L.A. Confidential and would go on to make Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind in the subsequent years) topping his cast, Mann had the leverage to make a blow-by-blow of Wigand’s seduction and betrayal. But he still had to figure out how to tell the story. Where Heat and The Last of the Mohicans had depicted panoramic landscapes, The Insider was a movie concerned with intense conversation and contemplation.

The Insider begins with a moment that would be the climax in any other film of its ilk. We meet Wigand after his split from the tobacco giant Brown & Williamson. He has been fired after clashing with higher-ups at the company over the use of ammonia chemistry—a process which essentially enhances nicotine’s effects on the body. Maybe he’s already decided to blow the whistle on the company, either as an act of vengeance or of decency. It’s hard to tell with Wigand.

Enter Bergman, who helps Wigand realize this compulsion to speak, for better or for worse. Bergman, along with his longtime correspondent Mike Wallace (played by Christopher Plummer), produces a segment on big tobacco for 60 Minutes, featuring an explosive interview with Wigand in which he accuses the head of Brown & Williamson of perjuring himself before Congress. In order to get around Wigand’s nondisclosure agreement, Bergman also orchestrates Wigand’s testimony in a Mississippi court, as part of the state’s suit against the tobacco industry. However, when it comes time to air the 60 Minutes segment, CBS corporate gets involved, nixing the broadcast of the interview. Bergman accuses the likes of Wallace, 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt, and others at the company of caving in the face of a possible sale of the network to the Westinghouse Corporation. The last hour of the movie follows Bergman’s efforts to force CBS to air the interview, while keeping Wigand from going off the deep end.

The Insider is an issue movie, and a journalism movie, and one scene of an absolutely gangbusters courtroom drama, but really, it’s a Michael Mann movie, which means it’s a heist movie. It’s about the strictures put around the truth, and how one goes about unlocking it. Four years earlier, Pacino had costarred in Heat, playing a detective hunting down his criminal counterpart, a master thief played by Robert De Niro. In The Insider, Pacino is the burglar, trying to prise something free from Crowe’s grasp.

The performances of the two leads offer a great study in contrast. Pacino is outrageously good, screaming about ethics in journalism with his “SHE’S GOT A GREAT ASS” voice. As Bergman, he spends a lot of time espousing the moral and institutional superiority of 60 Minutes, name-dropping the Frankfurt School’s Herbert Marcuse, and busting his coworkers’ chops for not being on his level. Crowe, hulking and intentionally out of shape, hides Wigand behind unfashionable glasses and boxy gray suits. This is a man who is uncomfortable everywhere—with his family, with his coworkers, on his own. The happiest he seems in the entire movie is when he is addressing a group of students about chemistry after taking a job teaching in a Louisville high school, but for the most part Crowe plays Wigand as a rather unpleasant public health crusader. If that’s really what he is. There’s an ambiguity to Wigand’s motivations: Does he want to do good, or screw over the people who jeopardized his family’s well-being? Does it matter which one it is?

Most of the first two-thirds of the film is made up of Bergman fiddling with the dials, trying to tune into Wigand’s frequency and get at what this source is sitting on. Early on, in a meeting in Louisville, Bergman comes at him straight on and asks, “Why are you working for tobacco in the first place?” Wigand looks down and says, “I can’t talk about it.” This is taken to be in reference to Wigand’s NDA, but it makes Bergman laugh. You want to dance? We’ll dance.

That’s what Pacino does for the rest of the movie: He dances around his kill like a predator. Once he gets wind of Wigand, he never lets go of the scent, and there are these wonderful moments when we just get to see Pacino, high off his own sensory awareness, poring through documents or waiting for a fax to come in or for someone to call him back, angling for a meeting to break his way, or maneuvering someone to do what he wants and think it’s their own idea. He is a lot like a thief, but instead of a safecracker and a gun, he has a mobile phone and a Rolodex of contacts. The Insider might be the last great phone movie ever made—released right before texting and email became the primary form of professional and personal communications. At the time of release, Mann told Salon, “The picture is two hours and 32 minutes of talking. Everything is dialogue. On the one hand you could view it as a horrible restriction; on the other hand you could view it as this great adventure.” Everything in this movie is intimate. It’s all domestic, taking place in living rooms, hotel rooms, bedrooms, and offices. Doors get closed for privacy, tips get passed under the breath while standing at a bar, crucial conversations take place as side chatter at restaurants or during bus rides.

This may be ultimately why The Insider is a somewhat forgotten film from 1999, and in Mann’s catalog. It’s comparatively quiet. It’s not about the pursuit of a serial killer, or John Dillinger, or a bank robber. It’s not a biopic of a famous figure. When Wallace meets Wigand and his wife, he derisively asks Bergman, “Who are these people?” Bergman responds: “Ordinary people under extraordinary pressure.”

Bergman sticks up for his source, but he and Wigand could not be more different. Their few attempts at chitchat—at one point Bergman asks Wigand, “You think the Knicks are gonna make it to the semifinals?”—are painfully awkward. The thing that unites them is the same thing that unites all of Mann’s central characters: a pride in work, and an obsession with perfecting the process of that work. By the end of the film, Brown & Williamson has run Wigand through the ringer, orchestrating a smear campaign against him that temporarily derails Bergman’s support of his story. But, ultimately, what seems to drive Wigand is not being taken seriously, being brushed aside, being rejected. He is too good at his job for that to be his fate, and he reacts aggressively in response.

Bergman behaves the same way in the face of his own challenges. In the movie’s emotional climax (I guess every time Pacino opens his mouth it’s an emotional climax), Bergman dresses down Hewitt over the neutering of his story, and defends leaking details from behind the scenes to The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

For most of the movie, Bergman wears 60 Minutes like a badge of honor. But, as he will later tell Wallace upon resigning from the show, “What got broken here doesn’t go back together again.” He walks away from the pinnacle of his profession because they didn’t treat his work the way it deserved to be treated. To Mann, there is no greater crime.

The visual style of The Insider—handheld, invasive, close-to-the-skin shots of people working and thinking and living—is in harmony with the story’s thematic concerns. This film asks: What goes on inside people’s heads? That makes it like a lot of the best titles that came out in 1999. In a year that saw movies like Being John Malkovich and Fight Club imaginatively actualize the dark territory of the human mind, The Insider poeticizes what we can’t know about people. It is filmed from just outside touching distance of understanding, with many shots of Wigand looking as if they were set up on his lapel, or just behind his ear, like the camera is trying to burrow into his mind. The Matrix and Eyes Wide Shut inspired reams of analysis, unpacking their meaning and symbolism. What you see is what you get with The Insider, save for one moment of fantastical imagery, when, in a moment of crisis, Wigand’s hotel walls dissolve into an imagined scene of domestic bliss—his children playing in the backyard—as he reflects on everything he’s sacrificed to do the right thing.

That’s the central question The Insider asks, I think: Why do we do the right thing? Why does doing the right thing often seem like an act of self-harm? Why does doing the wrong thing often seem like an act of self-preservation? Does it matter if Wigand was a relatively unpleasant person? Does it matter that Bergman manipulated him to get the story he wanted, regardless of what it did to Wigand’s personal life? Does it matter that 60 Minutes ultimately gets the credit for running the story, even if they initially choked during the first airing of the piece? I keep going back to what Mann, the consummate action director, told Salon: “It’s actions that count, not what motivated you to do them. There’s no purely motivated action in this motion picture—not on the part of Wigand, not even on the part of Lowell. It’s life.”