The Insider was the 1999 Best Picture Oscar nominee that didn’t. Do any business, that is. Which is, more often than not, a major mark against it getting the big prize. It can happen (2009, and there was a string of them from 2014-2016), but aside from brief, self-congratulatory “we care about art first” vibes, it generally does nothing for the ceremony’s profile, or the confidence of the industry that is its bread and butter. The Insider lacked the easy accessibility of the other nominees – supernatural affairs, wafer-thin melodramas or middle-class suburbanite satires. It didn’t even brandish a truly headlines-shattering nail-biter in its conspiracy-related true story, as earlier contenders All the President’s Men and JFK could boast. But none of those black marks prevented The Insider from being the (relative) cream of the year’s crop.
There are those who tout the film as Michael Mann’s best movie, and it undoubtedly has many admirable qualities, but I don’t think it can quite scale to the heights of Heat or Manhunter. Or even The Last of the Mohicans and Collateral, come to that. The chief problem is that aforementioned subject matter. The idea that Big Tobacco should collude in collective denial that they’re spiking their product to make nicotine even more addictive while denying that cigarettes do any such thing is probably the biggest “Like, duh” shrug going, and no degree of ratcheting up the tension and paranoia and threats against Russell Crowe’s whistle-blower protagonist can truly mitigate that. Mann has thus rather shot himself in the backfoot he’s started out on, so it’s quite an achievement that he manages to make as engrossing a movie as he does.
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that The Insider, as absorbing as it is during the first ninety minutes, only really kicks into wholly compelling gear during the last half hour. Post the fact of former Brown & Williamson exec Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe) agreeing to be interviewed on 60 Minutes (thanks to Al Pacino’s producer Lowell Bergman), he gives testimony in Mississippi, in so doing ignoring a Kentucky gagging order. It’s an electric scene, as Wings Hauser’s attorney repeatedly instructs Wigand to be mindful of his Brown & Williamson agreement, to the incensed reaction of Bruce McGill’s prosecutor gathering evidence against Big Tobacco (“Wipe that smirk off your face!”) The most consistent edge-of-the-seat stretch is still to come, though.
Bergman: Are we going to air it? Of course not. Why? Because he’s not telling the truth? No. Because he is telling the truth. That’s why we’re not going to air it. And the more truth he tells, the worse it gets!
It’s ironic that, with all the previous time spent on Wigand’s domestic, financial and of-conscience trials, the picture hits its stride dealing with the internal wrangling at CBS, as Bergman must face the company’s corporate controllers capitulating to the pressures of the tobacco companies, fearful of being sued (Brown & Williamson could own CBS at the end of it, he is told), but really because they don’t want anything to impact the company’s potential sale adversely.
I don’t necessarily think Pacino was the best pick for Bergman; this came at a point in his career when he was no longer disappearing into parts. Which was perfect for something like Heat, but here, there’s a tonal mismatch between Al essentially being Al and Crowe sinking into a part or Christopher Plummer’s subtle restraint (fantastic as Mike Wallace, ethically compromised by his desire to shore up a legacy). Don’t get me wrong, Pacino and Plummer are fascinating together, and Pacino at his most combustible, angrily facing down boss Philip Baker Hall (as Don Hewitt), is enthralling stuff. But his presence doesn’t quite offer the seamless immersion the story demands.
Crowe, though, is quite extraordinary as Wigand, without any recourse to vanity playing his now current age and not just looking it, but inhabiting a puffy, problematic, withdrawn, difficult, easily enraged man; indeed, the rougher the edges, the better. Mann starts out by making Wigand’s wife Diane Venora appear unreasonable for thinking about money while he’s wrestling with a moral quandary. But by the time we’re through, her decision to leave him seems not only entirely reasonable but the only sensible course of action (Mann appears to be repeating his Heat approach, to an extent, by contrasting his male protagonists’ personal lives, but unfortunately, Lindsay Crouse is entirely wasted in a nothing part as Bergman’s wife).
The takeaway with Crowe’s eventual Oscar glory is the old one of right actor, wrong performance. This has happened numerous times, of course, sometimes, as here, through neglecting an immediately adjacent role that should have won; Joan Fontaine was given the award for Suspicion, when it was abundantly clear it was in recognition for being passed over for the previous year’s Rebecca. So Crowe won the following year for Gladiator, where he’s commanding to be sure, but his achievement is mostly notable through giving substance to cardboard character. I think it’s fair to say that, with the possible exception of Romper Stomper, the actor hasn’t come close to Wigand – for which he was nominated but passed over in favour of a much flashier performance – elsewhere in his career.
There are some nice supporting turns besides those I’ve mentioned, including Gina Gershon as a smooth corporate lawyer, Michael Gambon as the silky Brown & Williamson CEO and Colm Feore, now forever consigned to villains, it seems, leading the good fight against Big Tobacco.
One does end up feeling Mann’s eye isn’t always on the ball with his choices, since his natural inclination is towards neo-noirish extravagance. This sometimes actively fights against the gritty tale The Insider wants to be; there’s a great scene that nevertheless feels entirely inappropriate, where Bergman’s on his chunky cell phone, walking into the ocean in an attempt to get better reception while instructing a hotel manager to break into Wigand’s room because he suspects he may be suicidal. It’s all kinds of excessive, and in a different film would have been a classic.
Still, he’s always ready with striking compositions, such as Wigand making a call in a room of plastic-wrapped furniture, or sat silently in an intensely muralled hotel suite. Contrastingly, while Mann’s admirably focussed throughout on Wigand’s whistleblowing, there’s an entirely superfluous and distracting thread concerning Bergman’s Unabomber story that really should have been shorn; presumably, the director felt that, in the name of diligence to the bigger picture, it had to stay.
As usual under Mann, the marriage of music to image is striking and memorable, courtesy of, respectively, Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke, and Dante Spinotti. David Milch, meanwhile, must have been a fan of the use of Iguazu by Gustavo Sanataolalla, as it also shows up in Season One of Deadwood.
Wigand: You believe that because you get information out to people, something happens? … Maybe that’s just what you’re telling yourself all these years to justify having a good job. Having status. Or maybe for the audience, it’s just voyeurism, something to do on a Sunday night. And maybe it won’t change a thing. And people like myself and my family are hung out to dry. Used up, broke, alone.
There’s an additional irony to the manner in which the reporter side ultimately provides the dramatic main course; it’s almost a reflection of the conversation in which Wigand imagines he will be screwed over (and is). And also because this side is only more resonant in light of state vilification (and the fugitive or incarcerated status) of whistle-blowers in recent years, adding to the idea that not only does it not pay, but that the public also doesn’t really care.
The Insider was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and like several other Best Picture nominees that night (The Green Mile, The Sixth Sense), it went home empty handed. It’s a shame that it remains the best of those up for consideration that year and yet its profile has not risen at all in the last two decades.