Much like he began the decade in 1992 developing seemingly unconventional material to fit his cinematic vision with The Last of the Mohicans, Michael Mann followed the success of 1995’s Heat and closed the 90’s out with The Insider (1999), a taught, thinking-person’s thriller that, like The Last of the Mohicans, seemed worlds away from Mann’s usual playground of cops and criminals.
But just like Mohicans, the more one looks at The Insider, the more a perfect fit it seems within Mann’s compact filmography. For the lives at the moral center of The Insider are always as ragged and in just as much jeopardy as those in Thief (1981) or Heat. In fact, they may be in even more danger given that the heavies in The Insider rely on both brute strength and the kind of top flight legal backing only a bottomless pit of blood money could buy. In fact, at some point in the middle of the film The Insider challenges the audience to meditate on how absurd it is that a fleet of security and police officers have to be on hand to protect a dough-faced scientist from a possible assassination attempt by a cigarette company.
Adapted by Mann and Eric Roth from “The Man Who Knew Too Much, Marie Brenner’s own piece of investigative journalism which appeared in Vanity Fair in May of 1996, The Insider is a story of a corporate whistle-blower Jeffery Wigand (Russell Crowe, never better) whose life is put into jeopardy when he turns on Brown and Williamson, his big tobacco ex-employer, and gives an interview to 60 Minutes at the behest of producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino, giving one of his most underrated performances). Things take a turn when, after putting Wigand’s life in jeopardy and all but ruining it, CBS begins to back away from airing the radioactive interview which leaves both Wigand and Bergman twisting in the wind.
In Jeffery Wigand, Michael Mann finds an extraordinarily flawed hero, per his usual playbook. Early in the film, he comes home from work and, before he’s inside the house for more than thirty seconds, he asks his young daughter if it’s a bit early for cartoons while he fixes himself a drink. Like Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna in Heat, he is also in the last throes of an unhappy marriage with a wife played by Diane Venora. And, in fact, this movie may do a better job than Heat at showing how a relationship disintegrates under immense pressure as the strains of a high wired supercop aren’t as relatable as corporate pressure, the damage, and the paranoia that comes with it.
The Insider is inhabited by a network of people who know other people who might know a guy somewhere and other harried intermediaries who eventually cobble together the story that becomes public knowledge. But information is both a commodity and a curiosity in The Insider. For the film asks a question of responsibility on the part of manufacturers of dangerous products and the media in doing their duty to expose such things with buckets of money rotting out the moral center of both organizations. But the film also reveals something about us as an audience. Instead of examining specific grievances related to negligence or corporate irresponsibility, we generally fall into a reductive chorus that parrots the chorus crafted by the companies that are the ones under scrutiny, thereby weakening salient points in fact (ie “No shit McDonald’s coffee is hot” is exactly what McDonald’s, clearly delinquent even after a cursory reading of the lawsuit, wanted you to say). Mann highlights Wigant testimony by revealing something pretty heinous about big tobacco and it registers with the audience within the film and those watching the film. For “cigarette smoking is bad for you” is an abstract no-brainer; explaining how a company manipulates your own chemistry to crave their product that they also know can kill you is both shocking and precise.
There is also something of a transactional feel to the relationships in The Insider that is not unlike the give and take between the police and their confidential informants in Mann’s other work. For Bergman doesn’t begin on the Wigand story but, instead, is just looking for help in deciphering an anonymously-sent fire safety report that has been prepared for Philip Morris. When Wigand shows up at a secret meeting to get recruited into helping decipher the document, Wigant can’t quit talking about how much he can’t talk about anything outside the scope of the information that is being used in the fire safety report against Philip Morris. Sensing a larger story about the clandestine and powerful world of big tobacco, Bergman goes in for the kill and uses Wigand’s weaknesses to draw it out of him.
Almost driving home the point that the underworld and the corporate world aren’t all that different, Mann directs a scene in which Wigand and Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon) discuss Wigand’s confidentiality agreement as if it were Thief’s Leo and Frank discussing the latter’s end being put into the Davenport shopping centers. Wigand wants so desperately to tell Sandefur that he is about to wear his ass for a hat and, given the veiled threats against Wigand and his family and the way he’s been humiliated by the corporate giant, he has every right to go off. But this is not what we do in a polite society even when the criminal element is being run on the straight and narrow. So, to this end, The Insider does an amazing job showing how holes in the legal system can be stretched large enough through which one can run interference and cause mischief, which is about on par with having a gun and a bulletproof vest.
The Insider is also rare that it doesn’t think the audience is impatient or stupid and it carefully takes the time to convey all the kinks in the pipeline and also stressing the gravity of the situation for all parties involved. Like a finely turned espionage piece, it provides moves and countermoves and underlines just how much of a struggle it is to get the truth into the atmosphere. It has the kind of jerky machinations where people edge forward in inches, resembling feels the small eternity that is the last 120 seconds of a pro basketball game.
And while Mann is firmly on the side of truth and justice in this film, he doesn’t completely let the news media off the hook either in deed, such as the craven maneuvers CBS takes due to their possible sale of the network, or detail, as shown when Bergman is helping with the edit of the Wigand segment. More or less acting as an impact agent himself, images are manipulated and reshuffled to affect the viewer in the same way the chemistry manipulation in cigarettes might. And, of course, this also turns on the protagonists later when a taped, content-neutral interview with Wigand’s ex-wife is edited and released to the press to smear him as a witness.
With The Insider, Michael Mann shows an absolutely masterful hand at making an important, impactful, and brilliantly composed drama by using its smart script to work in tandem with the gorgeous visuals and pulsating sound design. By exploring enormous amounts of negative space, Mann presents a tense frame that oftentimes feels like it has inhabited the inside of the character’s head, and it is both satisfactorily intimate in its character detail while staying ridiculously operatic. Because who among us hasn’t taken an important business call while waist deep in the ocean while a dramatic storm builds on the distant horizon?
In the opening moments of The Insider, Bergman is brought to the undisclosed location of Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, leader of the Hezbollah movement. Bergman is in a tricky situation but, in a room where he has zero leverage, the way he passionately defends 60 Minutes’s reputation in his attempt setting up a possible interview is defiant and impressive. When the film ends, the audience has to ask themselves if he would he say the same thing in the same situation if it were to have happened AFTER the Wigand ordeal? Absolutely not.
Because, in the end, The Insider, is a film about the core, immovable ideals of men who went out of their fat fucking way and risked their lives and reputations to do the right thing. And when those ideals are shattered by that same corruption that threatened things most dear to them, they become no less than Frank as he tears up his postcard and drives off into the night to wander the rest of their days in perpetual disillusionment.
Or, as Bergman tells Christopher Plummer’s Mike Wallace on his way out of CBS’s headquarters for the final time, “What got broken here doesn’t go back together again.”
Yup. That sounds like Michael Mann to me.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain