Personal Pantheon: The Insider – 1999

“The greater the truth, the greater the damage.”

We’ve been told our entire lives that we should always tell the truth, that it can “set us free,” and that honesty is always the best policy. But in some instances, this turns out to be a major falsehood. Telling the truth can have major repercussions that can alienate you from your surroundings and or career, and the effects of your honesty can effect more people than you originally imagined. In journalism, this happens all the time.  “The Insider,” directed by Michael Mann, is a riveting example of this.

At first glance, “The Insider” is about the evils of the tobacco industry and the crusade of a single whistleblower, but is is so much more than that. It is an examination of both the tobacco industry and the realistic goals and limitations of broadcast journalism, and it achieves both of those objectives thanks to incredible filmmaking and some brilliant performances.

The film, which takes place in the mid-1990’s, tells the story of  Jeffery Wigand (Russell Crowe) who is the corporate vice president of the Brown and Williamson tobacco company, who at the film’s start is told that he has been fired. He has a wife and two daughters, one of whom has asthma, so Wigand needs to have medical insurance. The company knows this, so they make Wigand sign a confidentiality agreement that says his family will lose severance and insurance if he gives anyone inside information on the countless lies spread by Big Tobacco. Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), the producer of CBS’ “60 Minutes,” is doing a story on cigarettes and fire safety and seeks out Wigand as a consultant on the story. Wigand tells Bergman his story, and Bergman in turn encourages him to blow the whistle on Brown and Williamson and do an interview on “60 Minutes.” Wigand refuses, but when he starts receiving death threats, he decides he can’t take it anymore and seizes the opportunity to expose the lies Big Tobacco has been telling about cigarettes and their addictive qualities. He sits down for an interview with the legendary Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer just crushes this role), but the fallout of this interview will affect the lives of everyone involved in drastic ways.

What I love about this movie is that it explores how being a whistleblower can destroy your life, and it it also a devastating critique of the state of modern journalism. This movie would be a great double feature with “Good Night and Good Luck.” This movie works on two fronts. We see how Wigand’s life completely falls apart after he loses his job. His wife attacks him for putting this interview ahead of his family’s needs and eventually leaves him, and Wigand, who has a history of emotional and anger problems, can’t handle the media analyzing every aspect of his life and blowing up every minute detail in order to discredit his allegations against Brown and Williamson.  This film is brave because it does not paint Wigand as a hero. He is even unlikable at times, letting his emotions cloud his judgment. This is a complicated role to tackle, but thankfully, this movie has Russell Crowe. In one of the most devastating, implosive and unforgettable performances ever captured on film, Crowe disappears into this character, and gives him so many facets that it takes several viewings to take in everything he tries to do with this character. The fact that Crowe didn’t win the Oscar for this movie is a travesty.

The film’s other track follows CBS’ reaction to the Wigand interview. CBS’ lawyers find out that since Wigand’s interview violates his confidentiality agreement, Brown and Williamson could sue CBS for billions of dollars, since they technically own the information he revealed. As a result, CBS orders Bergman to cut an alternate interview without the controversial information. In a shocking act of journalistic cowardice, the other producers comply, to Bergman’s shock and outrage. Pacino has been maligned over the years for going to over-the-top in many of his performances, but when he scales back and focuses on playing a character, he is still as good as he ever was. This is one of his most underrated performances, investing Bergman with righteous idealism and an iron-will to getting the tough stories told. “The Insider” offers a painfully real presentation of modern journalism: corporate interests outweigh journalistic ones every time. The days of “All The President’s Men” and journalists as American heroes are long gone. The entire film and its themes of compromise and the ends justifying the means can be summed up in this scene, where Bergman tells off his co-workers for throwing journalistic integrity under the bus, is one of my all-time favorites, and Pacino is incredible in it.

All of this could’ve been a bore that would only entertain insiders in the industry, but Michael Mann, known for his epic, brooding and violent crime epics like “Heat” and “Manhunter,” restrains from his usual stylistic fireworks and keeps a steady hand making all of this information into a tense, exciting thriller. Even at 158 minutes, this movie doesn’t drag for a second thanks to the excitement of the performances and the great script Mann co-wrote with Eric Roth.

While “The Insider” does deal a lot with the business aspects of tobacco and broadcast journalism, it tells a universal truth, that truth should never be compromised, no matter what the consequences might be. “What was broken here, can never be put back together,” Bergman tells Mike Wallace at the end of the movie, referring to the years of trust and integrity 60 Minutes built up. “The Insider” tells the story of a free press that can only be shackled by itself.