The Insider (1999)

Russell Crowe in The Insider

Conflict doesn’t necessarily arise from the battle between good and evil. There are times when conflict comes from the push and pull of multiple opposing goods. Sometimes, this type of conflict is even a more tenuous struggle and a more gripping drama. The Insider is one such example of this.

The film tackles the true story of whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe). It follows how he discloses confidential information regarding the tobacco industry with the help of 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and the multitude of troubles that befall him because of it. It’s a story that, at face value, may be far from relatable for a lot of people. Yet the basic concerns that it touches on are the types of simple issues that can unsettle most of us.

It begins with Wigand and Bergman in parallel plotlines. The former getting fired from his job at tobacco giant Brown & Williamson and the latter getting an anonymous package of documents in the mail. Their paths intersect when Bergman searches for help to interpret the documents and he ends up being pointed to the direction of Wigand.

For about half an hour into the film the viewer is kept in the dark. What are in the documents? Why was Wigand released from his job? Mann patiently builds on the suspense until it’s revealed that Wigand is in possession of information that could wreak havoc not only on Brown & Williamson, but the entire tobacco industry. Once he decides to release the information via 60 Minutes, the film switches gears and Mann pulls out the thrills.

Now, as thrilling as it is to watch pristinely crafted gunfights, heists, car chases and the like, there’s nothing that brings out a more raw emotional response than that which taps into a person’s basest fears. In this film, Mann tones down the action to almost zero, yet reaches heights in terms of thrill and suspense that he hadn’t previously achieved with his more visceral work.

Throughout the predicament, one finds it very easy to be sympathetic and relate to the troubles of the poor family man out on a quest for justice. We want Big Tobacco to pay for their irresponsible conduct. We want our family to be safe and financially stable. We want our journalists to always put integrity and the search for truth before anything else. We want to believe that money and power is not everything in this world. So when the film shows us the peril and desperation that befalls a man who is on the right side in all of this, what else can we do but rage?

The Insider sees Michael Mann at the top of his game. There are moments when you can see him struggling to maintain the subtlety and nuance required for certain portions of the film, but he pulls it off. If ever there are lapses into heavy-handedness, they are very minor. As it stands, this is his most cohesive work. It highlights his ability to squeeze every ounce of tension from situations that most people can relate to and solidifies him as a master of his craft.

Rating: B+ (great)