From some standpoints, it's astonishing that Hollywood has spent nearly 100 years telling stories to a large public and managed to miss, largely or entirely, so many of the great issues and movements that have occupied headlines and transformed public life during the past century. But then, just when you're about to bemoan that neglect and wonder why we can't have a more culturally engaged cinema, you run up against a film like Michael Mann's The Insider, which reminds you of an uncomfortable reality: as a means of examining large, complex events, movies are far less capable and satisfactory than books, print journalism or even good tv journalism.
I want to be fair to The Insider because, though I consider it a largely unsuccessful film, it seems bound to inspire reactions that will run to extremes of overstatement. On one hand, it bids fair to join American Beauty as the middlebrow succes d'estime of the year to date; with its furiously important air and brace of topical concerns and recognizable media faces, it's virtually assured various Oscar nominations as well as the hosannas of many mainstream pundits. On the other hand, detractors may simply jeer at its pretensions and windy excesses without bothering to ponder its essential problems, which, to me, are worth more scrutiny and discussion than the Big Issues the film fumblingly engages.
The Insider derives from a 1996 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner titled "The Man Who Knew Too Much." Even a superficial comparison of the movie and its source suggests a lot about the peculiarities of the cinematic version. Brenner's piece tells the story of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe in the film), a fired Brown & Williamson science executive who entered a years-long legal, personal and journalistic ordeal when he turned on his former employers and began to reveal some of Big Tobacco's dirty little secrets. In the Vanity Fair account, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino in the film), a 60 Minutes producer who tried to get Wigand's story out, is only one of many supporting characters. In Mann's handling, Wigand's story becomes the story of Wigand and Bergman?the singular "Man Who..." slyly transmuting into that cleverly ambiguous Insider?which also involves conjoining the issue of Big Tobacco with that of Corporate Journalistic Ethics.
Granted, Brenner's story touches on many topics other than Big Tobacco and its nefarious ways with apostates. But the question is still worth asking: Why trade her story's single-character and (essentially) single-issue focus for a dual-track approach? I can imagine the answer Mann might give to this, just as I can imagine the agreement it would get from various editorialists and theory types. Any big public issue like tobacco, they would say, is wholly intertwined with and dependent upon the way it's represented in the media. Indeed, any such story effectively has two subjects: the issue and its trajectory through the politicized realm of media. To a point, I not only buy this argument but applaud its realism.
Yet it leaves out something crucial. Transparently, the reason Brenner's story has been transposed in this particular way is to give The Insider, in the figures of Bergman and Pacino respectively, a hero and a star. This is another kind of realism, the commercial kind, and its frustrations evoke age-old complaints. Are movies really so simpleminded that they can't dispense with the device of a hero? Is a big star an irreplaceable component of any serious, large-scale film? Maybe the answer's a grudging yes in both cases. But if we grant those concessions, surely we expect something big in return: a dramatic grasp of the story's essential elements, a viewpoint and a result that use filmic contrivances to serve the greater truth, rather than vice versa.
Because, in any film that invokes media ethics, the film's own ethical dimension must be conspicuously superior or its arguments will be as precariously perched as a house built on sand. This is precisely where The Insider's basic weaknesses lie. In castigating 60 Minutes' handling of the Wigand matter, it wants us to believe that its own vision is clearer, its own representations freer of compromise and influence, and I don't buy that for a second.
Failure in such cases is often a matter of degree or emphasis, and you get a clear sense of The Insider's impending dubiousness in its opening minutes. Among the many small ways tv esthetics have invaded and debased those of film is the increasing use in movies of tv-like "teasers," brief prologues that provide an initial burst of energy or a foretaste of the dramatic crux (see American Beauty, among many others). The Insider opens in Lebanon in a rush of speeding cars and spine-chilling danger. A motorcade bears Bergman to the lair of a Hezbollah leader, a dark prince of terrorists. With menace looming all around, the cellphone-bearing producer negotiates an interview with the shadowy sheik, and he does it solo, with expert aplomb and steady-eyed cool. Cut to a few days later. Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) arrives to do the interview. But the mood's now no longer one of danger. Technicians scurry around and Wallace is additionally buffered by self-regard, obviously caring more about camera angles than Uzis.
Looking back on this episode, you have to notice one thing: it has nothing to do with what the movie's supposedly about. Hezbollah may be guilty of many things but to my knowledge its crimes do not include supplying America with tar and nicotine. Of course, the teaser is meant to establish an aura of big events and to tell us something about Bergman's job and professional grit. But it implicitly does much more than that. By leaving Big Tobacco out of the picture entirely, it subtly establishes that the main subject here is the Media, and that any particular Issue addressed will be subordinate. It likewise signals that the drama's ultimate battle will pit heroic Bergman, the producer with the nerves of James Bond, against fusty, vain Mike Wallace, the superstar corporate lackey. (It's now well-known that this opening episode originally had a moment when Bergman, in the heat of his dangerous negotiations, gets a call from Wallace demanding luxury hotel digs in Lebanon.)
But I err in saying the Media. The real subject here is Television, with which Americans are presumed to be obsessively fascinated, enough so to give any movie that foregrounds it an immediate cachet of significance. In effect, The Insider belongs to a long line of movies, including the likes of Network and Quiz Show, which score critical points by deriding the younger medium from an assumed but unearned position of thoughtful superiority, a stance that often seems to veil an odd mix of jealousy and bruised self-importance. Nor is it incidental that The Insider's one nugget of revelation?that your idol Mike Wallace has feet of clay?is at once flashy, celebrity-centric and shrewdly self-serving: in providing the foil needed to make Bergman's heroics shine that much brighter, it also poses Michael Mann as the arbiter of 60 Minutes' ethics.
And what of Big Tobacco? Well, movies weighty with significance often depend on messages of staggering obviousness or redundancy. You may have heard, for example, that "the Holocaust was bad": Hollywood is still hawking that looming truism as if it were the morning's news. Now we learn that "Big Tobacco is nasty." But seriously: no Hollywood movie wants to put us in a position where we actually have to think, to puzzle out the complexities of an emotional issue like tobacco. And indeed The Insider doesn't invite us to see the current tobacco wars as a circus of hypocrisies?where is Tom Wolfe when you need him??in which phonies like Rep. Henry Waxman grandstand shamelessly and squadrons of state-house Bolivars crusade to soak the beleaguered tobacco industry for billions, a hefty percentage of which will go straight into the pockets of their own lawyerly class. (Why not simply outlaw tobacco? Obviously: that would deprive the lawyerly of the financial and publicity windfalls they are currently wallowing in.)
After that curious trip to Lebanon, The Insider spends most of its first hour-plus (the overlong whole weighs in at a puffy two and a half hours) following Wigand, who's played by Crowe as a walking peptic ulcer in a gray thatch wig. At first he's living in a white suburban manse with the perfect society wife (Diane Venora) and a pair of cute little girls. Having signed a confidentiality agreement with Brown & Williamson, and keen to keep his generous severance package with its topflight medical benefits, he's no bomb-thrower. But after he begins interpreting documents from another company as an expert consultant, weird things begin happening and his slide into personal disarray commences. He's followed, he gets death threats. He moves into a smaller house and acquires professional security. His marriage begins to fray. If you've seen Silkwood, you know the basic drill: a mix of principle, paranoia and shadowy pursuers.
Let's just allow, to get it out of the way, that Big Tobacco really is nasty and would hound a guy like Wigand to shut him up. Still, the film is remarkably vague and uneven in the way it portrays Wigand. In this, it partly mirrors Brenner's article, which relates that B&W's minions assembled a 500-page set of charges against Wigand, yet doesn't assert that these accusations are all false and trumped up so much as it creates the impression that most of them probably are. In The Insider such sketchiness also comes across as dramatic bungling. When, for example, late in the game we learn that Wigand had a previous wife and child from which he's problematically estranged, it leaves the uncomfortable sense that we haven't understood much about the guy from the get-go. The movie would like him to be the Hero, but he patently isn't, so it drafts Bergman into that part and assigns Wigand another popular, if less glamorous, role: the Victim/Martyr. But even there he looks awkward, like a man wearing someone else's suit.
Given that the film has such problems dramatizing the evils of Big Tobacco and the character of Wigand, it's perhaps unavoidable that the tale's moral chess match would get moved over to 60 Minutes. Yet this is where ethics become a big issue and where the film's own become a bit suspect. Here's the nub of the matter: 60 Minutes has a whistle-blowing interview with Wigand that the show unprecedentedly decides not to air after network lawyers claim that it could provoke a lawsuit for "tortious interference," i.e., a charge by B&W that CBS induced Wigand to break the law to which his confidentiality agreement bound him. According to the film, there's something else behind this move: CBS bigs fear that such a lawsuit could jeopardize a merger deal with Westinghouse that's currently in the works. The film elides, however, another point that Brenner's article puts far more emphasis on: at the same time as the Westinghouse deal, Lorillard, a tobacco company owned by CBS chairman Laurence Tisch, was angling to buy six discount cigarette brands owned by Brown & Williamson (it eventually succeeded)!
Brenner makes it clear that the 60 Minutes gang, in trying to figure out the corporate pressure on them over Wigand, knew about the Westinghouse deal and didn't know about the Lorillard. Mann would probably cite that as his reason for not delving into the latter. But it's worth pointing out that Lorillard had become, in Brenner's words, "an immense cash bonanza for the Loews Corporation?the parent company controlled by Tisch and his brother, Robert?earning approximately $700 million a year." This couldn't be the same Loews Corp. that operates the Loews movie theater chain, could it? And that couldn't have anything to do with why Mann doesn't go after Larry Tisch and his son Andrew, the then-chairman of Lorillard, but rather targets Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt, who are made to seem like spineless, equivocating chumps next to Bergman's tower of rectitude and outraged integrity?
I'm not trying to frame my own federal indictment here so much as trying to suggest two things: First, movies are mostly inept when it comes to dealing with such sprawling, real-life subjects; they too easily reduce everything to Heroes and Victims, Heavies and Patsies, squashing all complexity while convincing the gullible that they're getting the ennobling Truth rather than the same old shadow play in topical guise. Second, at the root of The Insider is a very cheap and ultimately self-serving form of cynicism about the media. Do I believe everything that 60 Minutes says? Of course not. But do I trust Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt more than I would Larry Tisch or, for that matter, Jeff Wigand? You bet I do. As for the notion of taking lessons on journalistic ethics from Michael Mann, the creator of Miami Vice: give me a break. The idea's absurd enough to give Robert Altman the grist for a series of acridly disruptive satires.
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