The Insider (1999)

D: Michael Mann
S: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe

Interesting but inflated drama about ethics and betrayal centred on the true events surrounding the breaking of silence by a tobacco industry scientist on the nature of nicotine. When 60 Minutes producer Al Pacino gets wind of the story, he pursues reluctant insider Russell Crowe for the details. Crowe struggles internally, weighing family and personal concerns against questions of social responsibility, and also deals with death threats and an attempt to redefine his career, given that he has been fired by CEO Michael Gambon and bound to silence by contract. Pacino meanwhile navigates the labyrinth of media politics, and, in the film's second half, battles with his superiors to get the story on the air, even, eventually, taking on CBS stalwart and longtime friend Mike Wallace (played magnificently by Christopher Plummer). Essentially though, the plot is merely a backdrop for a long series of dialogue exchanges and scenes of characterisation which raise the weightier issues and allow time and lots of patient acting to run through them. On the balance, it works, but like director Michael Mann's previous and equally acclaimed thriller Heat, there is often a sense that too much time has been devoted to a subject which could have been handled just as effectively in half the time. Of course, God is in the details, and Mann's extension of all of the dramatic moments almost to breaking point does have the virtue of allowing his actors time to explore every nuance. Whether it makes the film better or not is a matter of debate.

It is difficult to identify the moment when Michael Mann graduated from the showy and superficial Miami Vice director to a cineaste whose works are received with gravity. Though Manhunter had its moments and The Last of the Mohicans was a solid historical genre piece, there was rather too much L.A. Takedown in Heat for anyone to miss that its qualities were as much in the good casting as anything inherent in Mann's stylistic choices. There are times when The Insider betrays its parentage and seems to be as much concerned with transient emotional affect as with developing and sustaining an atmosphere of moral uncertainty. This kind of film was made more regularly in Hollywood thirty years ago, and, on the balance, films like All the President's Men, The Conversation, The Verdict , and even Absence of Malice have covered similar ground more efficiently. Though it has a measured pace of its own, The Insider frequently feels too leisured for its own good. Though Pacino is magnetic and Crowe has done a remarkable job of aging himself, there isn't a lot of variety to either performance in the end, and some judicious editing and general tightening up would probably have resulted in a more impressive film. Not that The Insider isn't impressive, but in a sense it is impressive because it can't not be, especially at this length, with this much thematic weight, and with this cast. Aside from Crowe and Pacino, there is a wonderful turn from Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace which generates a real sense of a layered and complicated personality. Supporting performances from a large number of people are also beneficial, and the whole film has a ring of authenticity which compensates to some degree for Mann's often excessive visual presence.

There isn't a lot of imagistic depth to it. It is mostly constructed around set pieces and fragments, even though the script contains the kind of dramatic consistency which lends itself to a more coherent whole. Some of these moments are wonderful, the character arcs are resonant, and there is plenty to admire when the screen is filled with the faces of actors of this calibre. But there is a lack of linkage between form and content which shows because of the amount of time Mann spends staging each of the individual scenes. There are a number of drawn-out suspense and paranoia episodes, often with no payoff, which while they contribute to the general feeling of malaise, seem unnecessary after a while. There's still nothing in here to top the scene in All the President's Men where Robert Redford, having liaised with 'deep throat' leaves the parking garage and walks into the Washington night with an inexplicable feeling of dread, evoked brilliantly by director Alan J. Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis. Mann seems aware of how to generate atmosphere, but doesn't have the vision to integrate fragmentary moments into a satisfying work of cinema.

It is also curious that the central conceit of the film becomes such a sideline. Far from raising issues about the tobacco industry and the ethics of organised drug delivery, the film, though it mentions these things, turns more on personal questions than social ones. This is the Hollywood disease, of course, and again something that almost passed away in the 1970s. Though broader political and moral questions are raised, they are problematised through the medium of character to the extent that the questions themselves can be forgotten. Pacino, who has appeared in films with more political resonance than this, would probably be the first to admit it, but he's clearly having a great time, and is therefore unlikely to do so.

Contemporary audiences have become less demanding about this kind of thing, of course. As mainstream movies go, The Insider is solid enough. It does successfully raise some issues, there is plenty to admire and enjoy, and on the whole it provides thought-provoking entertainment which will appeal to a fairly broad audience. Yet, stacked against the contemporaneous American Beauty and The Talented Mr. Ripley, it seems more of a near-miss than a bulls-eye, worth a look, but overrated.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.