THE GOLDEN AGE of television has long since passed, but you'd never know it from Michael Mann's handsome, thorough, intelligent indictment of TV journalism. Forty years after Edward R. Murrow, CBS is a changed place, with 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) essentially pulling the strings behind septuagenarian Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer). An idealistic former '60s lefty, we're told, he fast-talks, cajoles, and finesses anyone in the way of a story—knowing, of course, that Wallace is his meal ticket and 60 Minutes the only reason anyone returns his phone calls.
directed by Michael Mann with Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, and Russell Crowe opens November 5 at Metro, Meridian 16, and others
Into his frenetic superconnected NYC life comes the awkward, socially inept Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a recently fired Louisville tobacco executive. Wanting to preserve some shred of dignity as "a man of science," and to maintain his lifestyle and medical benefits for his asthma-afflicted daughter, Wigand reluctantly agrees to help Bergman with a minor tobacco-related story. Soon Pacino begins sweet-talking him into breaching his lucrative confidentiality agreement by divulging industry secrets showing how "the seven dwarves"—big tobacco CEOs—lied in their infamous televised congressional testimony. You help the State of Mississippi's tobacco liability case, Bergman says, and we get our story.
Sound familiar? It should. The Insider is based on actual events, which culminated in the 1995 CBS decision to kill Wigand's damning 60 Minutes interview for fear of a tobacco industry lawsuit—which could've jeopardize the network's pending $5.4 billion sale to Westinghouse. Afterwards, Bergman cooperated extensively with Mann (Heat, Last of the Mohicans), while Wallace complained loudly about his allegedly unflattering portrayal.
This media looking-glass effect is heightened by Mann's incorporation of other real TV news footage, personalities, and stories. Yet in Plummer's tart portrayal, Wallace merely comes across as an ass-protecting curmudgeon, no fool. Pacino's crusading Bergman is the tortured embodiment of journalistic conscience. Crowe's Lomanesque Wigand is a pathetic, decent martyr for truth, victimized by corporate intrigue.
NO COURTROOM THRILLER with its single short deposition scene, The Insider mainly consists of people talking in rooms—for over two ponderous hours. Most often, they bark at one another via cell phone—in which respect the film must set some kind of record for roaming charges. Since we know his story's outcome from the news, Mann essentially plays his drama as a love triangle: Bergman and Wallace have a long-term relationship, then Wigand comes between them. Someone's going to get hurt.
"You know our reputation for integrity and objectivity," Pacino boasts, and he makes similar anguished remarks about protecting sources and not kowtowing to the suits at CBS. But in his fine, restrained performance (only occasionally verging on Scent of a Woman-like histrionics), one senses a disconnect with his do-gooder role. There's just not enough visceral punch beneath all the noble rhetoric.
Of course, The Insider's title is meant ironically: Bergman's just as much a pawn of TV as Wigand is of tobacco—as he belatedly comes to realize. But Mann can't help glamorizing that same intoxicating media world common to Black Rock and Beverly Hills. In The Insider's fantasy of power and influence, Wall Street Journal and New York Times editors are always a phone call away, willing to meet you in a picturesque saloon to extend a deadline. The FBI gives you tips. In the end, your adoring wife whispers, "You won." And you get to keep your oceanfront weekend home after quitting CBS for an even more prestigious job on Frontline.
Meanwhile, Wigand loses it all—which Mann tries to gloss over in a postscript. His film is a bit too polished and self-important, but it does have important things to say. Yet because we read them first, this well-made movie about TV ultimately seems like old news.