Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer
Director:  Michael Mann
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Touchstone
Features:  See Review
Length:  158 Minutes
Release Date:  April 11, 2000

Film ****

An interesting note in The Insider really helps put things in historical perspective:  it’s mentioned that, prior to the events depicted in this film, no personal injury lawsuit had ever been won against the Big Tobacco companies…an incredible concept, considering that there are more tobacco related deaths in this country every year than virtually anything else.  The events of this movie are what finally opened the doors, but the struggle continues.  Recently, a fifth personal lawsuit against Big Tobacco was won, but of the first four, two were overturned and two remain on appeal.  As of this writing, the companies have yet to hand over a red cent in the way of damages.

I wondered if I could view this movie with an impartial mind about its subject matter.  Quite frankly, I wondered how many people could, with tobacco related deaths so numerous and far reaching…seems a good bet that most people will have had some kind of personal encounter with it.  As for myself, I lost a mother, a grandmother, and a best friend’s father to smoking, so it’s fair to say, I have no love for Big Tobacco.

But interestingly enough, this movie is less about the scandal and testimonies that eventually exposed the intricate web of lies and deeply sewn deceptions of these corporations as it is about the process that brought them to life.  I always love movies that take me inside a world I’ve never been before, and this picture does just that, bringing its audience into the heart of mainstream television journalism.  Better than that, into the heart of the crowning jewel of TV news…the long running staple of CBS, 60 Minutes.

This popular news magazine has brought us closer looks at the world and events around us over its history, all the while dominating the ratings charts and being a veritable cash cow for CBS.  Producers like Lowell Bergman (Pacino) were once lean, hungry journalists who turned their fire for their craft into television history, and no-nonsense reporters like Mike Wallace (Plummer) brought the art of the interview to higher levels.  An early scene shows Mr. Wallace setting up for an interview with a suspected terrorist.  They tell him he’s sitting too close.  He responds, “When I conduct an interview, I’ll sit anywhere I damn well please.”

As we begin to see the workings of this classic news show, we are also casually introduced to the film’s major player, Jeffrey Wigand.  When we first see him, he appears alone and aloof.  He comes home for dinner to his beautiful house and family, and almost as an aside, mentions he was fired.

Wigand was a vice president and researcher for Brown and Williamson, the nation’s third leading cigarette manufacturer.  He was let go with a juicy severance package in exchange for his signature on a confidentiality agreement.  Through a simple turn of events, Bergman comes into his life to hire him as a consultant on a story on cigarette fire hazard.  But the fact that he’s spoken to someone from 60 Minutes at all makes his old employers nervous.  They question his word, and try to coerce his signature onto an even stricter agreement.

Instead of buckling, Wigand eventually decides to come clean and tell his story.  The implications of this are far reaching, and the complications even more so.  There are a few threats made against himself and his family (though the credits point out that no evidence exists that B & W was involved in any way).  His confidentiality agreement hovers like an axe over both him and the show.  It may be, as Bergman states, the biggest public health issue in American history, but it won’t be just a simple task of filming an interview and slapping it on the air.

The way Bergman goes about 1) trying to protect his source, Wigand, and 2) find a way to get out to the public the damning information he has is fascinating…in fact, completely absorbing.  He tries to arrange for Wigand to give testimony in a deposition for the state of Mississippi, which, under attorney general Michael Moore (who plays himself in the film), was trying to bring about the first lawsuit against Big Tobacco for their deceptive and deadly practices.  Wigand would have to tell the truth under oath, confidentiality agreement or no, and once given, his deposition would become public record.  But again, it’s not as easy as it seems, especially with Big Tobacco pouring millions of dollars into their own expert legal defense team.

When it comes time to air the segment, the story is pulled.  The reason?  60 Minutes might be sued by Big Tobacco for having encouraged Wigand to break his legal agreement.  It was a time that CBS happened to be up for sale, and a lawsuit of that potential size was simply to be avoided at all costs.  It was an amazing moral crossroads where journalism and the public’s right to know collided with the fact that the television station was in fact a business, with liabilities and responsibilities elsewhere.  Caught in the middle was Bergman, whose only hope of protecting his source from the smear campaign aligning against him is to air what he had to say…not to mention, the truth about the tobacco companies was in danger of being swept under the rug and kept hidden from the American people.

This is a long movie, but it’s one of those rare jewels that keeps you so engrossed in the characters and the story that you don’t notice the time passing.  Michael Mann is a brilliant directing talent, and his sense of rhythm and pacing, of keeping equal parts character and fact in the forefront, make this a movie watching experience that just seems to fly.  His technique of peppering hand held camera shots amongst the more carefully constructed cinematic ones give this picture a quasi-documentary feel, which suits the subject matter beautifully.  Much like his earlier film Heat, this is one bound to be remembered as a classic of the nineties.

Credit also the performances, especially the always good, always intense Al Pacino, who brings a sense of grounded reality to Bergman.  In many ways, he’s the hero of the story, but Pacino knows instinctively when to keep that part low key and not to call attention to it.  And credit Oscar nominee Russell Crowe for bringing the enigmatic and complex Wigand to life, as a man trying to do the best thing in spite of the price attached.

In the end…well, it’s not ancient history we’re looking at…the Big Tobacco story continues to make headlines.  So, is The Insider a celebration of the little man who goes up against the big corporate giant with nothing but the truth?  Maybe that’s what I expected going in.  Coming out, I’m not so sure.  I think instead, it’s more of a simple morality tale about doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.  Once you’ve grasped that concept, you tend to stop measuring the costs.  This movie is about a triumph, yet it doesn’t trumpet the victory.  It savors the win in a more pensive, sober, thoughtful way, and then wipes the slate clean for the next chapter.

Video ****

Outstanding!  Rank this among Disney’s best anamorphic transfers.  The images are dead on sharp and crystal clear throughout, with well defined lines and perfectly contained coloring throughout.  The overall look of the picture is an asset, as Mann used more natural and available lighting to add to the documentary feel.  Whatever he did flat out worked, because he managed to create a tapestry of perfectly coordinated images throughout, with amazing depth of detail.

Audio ***

This is mostly a dialogue oriented film, but the 5.1 soundtrack is serviceable, though finding only a handful of token but welcome uses for the surround speakers and .1 channel.  Most of the focus is in the front.  I found the dialogue to be recorded a tad too softly through most of the film, which I compensated by increasing the volume, which lead to some powerfully loud moments here and there in the interim, but it serviced the film well.  Apart from that, no real complaints.

Features **1/2

The disc contains a trailer and a production featurette, plus an “inside a scene” feature that lets you look at things like Mann’s notes to his actors during the construction of a set piece.


The Insider truly is one of the top films of last year.  Engrossing and involving, masterfully performed and directed, it draws the audience in by story and by character, and keeps its hold for the duration.  This is one not to be missed.