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  • Nate Lemann

THE INSIDER (1999) MOVIE REVIEW

Updated: Jul 16

Michael Mann's blistering 1999 thriller is the most vital and dynamic journalism movie ever, shot more like an action thriller than a corporate drama.


By Nate Lemann

Russell Crowe as Jeffery Wigand in "The Insider"
Russell Crowe as Jeffery Wigand in "The Insider"
 

Revisiting Michael Mann’s “The Insider” this week, one is struck by the realization that Mann is truly one of the great pioneers of filmmaking in the late 20th century. He takes a story that on paper is a talky corporate drama about the moral corruption in the cigarette and news media industries and flips it on its head, instead delivering a spy thriller that at times is filmed like a daring, gorilla-style documentary feature. While Mann will forever be remembered for “Heat”, he and Dante Spinotti achieve something far more challenging here, crafting dynamic action and tension out of a dense, dialogue heavy script, all while delivering one of the signature thrillers of the 1990s. Scenes like the initial meetings between Crowe and Pacino are shot like tense stand-offs as the two men work to size each other up. I’m particularly fond of the over the shoulder shots in this film and Spinotti’s use of focus to establish perspective. The Michael Gambon scene is one that lives rent-free in my mind.


Mann and co-writer Eric Roth are at their absolute best with this story. We open with Pacino’s Lowell Bergman (Mike Wallace’s famed “60 Minutes” producer) arranging for a tense interview with Hezbollah’s Sheik (Pacino through a burlap sack continually repeating “Hello Sheik” to an empty room in his iconic voice really hit my funny bone). Roth and Mann are able to quickly establish through small micro-gestures and lines how competent and skilled Wallace, Bergman, and their 60 Minutes team are at their jobs. It’s a trick Mann utilizes throughout when introducing new characters. For example: when we meet Colm Feore, a Mississippi lawyer part of the State’s suit against Big Tobacco, he’s flying a personal charter plane himself. It has no bearing on the rest of the story but quickly tells the audience all they need to know about this character without a line of exposition. There are countless examples of that and is a true testament to Mann’s ability to establish character through action rather dialogue. 


As we watch the 60 Minutes team establish their credentials, we meet Crowe’s Jeffery Wigand, the volatile and self-righteous proverbial “Insider”, getting let go and breaking the news to his wife (Diane Venora, the one character who felt fully underserved in the movie). This sets off a chain of events that will eventually lead Wigand and Bergman to each other. Their early scenes where Bergman is trying to coax the story we can clearly see Wigan wants to tell out of him are like watching a master seduction. It is Bergman’s commitment that he doesn’t burn sources that becomes the central conflict of the movie as they continue to expose Wigand to the wrath of the Big Tobacco legal machine. 


Even once they get Wigand on-tape and get him to testify in open court to work around his confidentiality agreement (the Bruce McGill scene in the deposition is maybe the best 30 seconds an actor has ever had in their career), they then must square off against the might (or, maybe better put, the cowardice) of CBS corporate. This is what sets this movie as one of the great corporate drama epics ever put to screen. This section not only becomes a showcase for Pacino (in what is arguably his last great performance), but allows Christopher Plummer’s Mike Wallace to step into the spotlight out his more secondary role in the first half of the movie. Plummer is at once charming, intimidating, harsh, and tragic. His reluctance to go through with the story and his eventual come to Jesus moment is so poignant and insightful into the man’s character. The fact that he was not nominated for an Oscar (let alone winning) for this role is one of the great crimes of film history. 


While Bergman and Wigand eventually get their way, much has been lost: Wigand’s family life and respect, Bergman’s reputation for protecting his sources. They sacrificed so much for this story and yet, we see an even splashier story (the Unabomber capture) that is lurking around the corner, ready to push Wigand’s bombshell out of the fast-paced news cycle. It is a victory but somehow feels hallowed by the ordeal they went through, not enriched by it. That is the hallmark of a true tragedy and one that will stand the test of time. It is quite possibly the greatest journalism movie ever made.


 

FINAL RATING: 5/5 Stars (Masterpiece)

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Hi! I'm Nate and I love to talk all things movies. I'll be posting new reviews, recent rewatches, and much more on this site. So come on and let's talk movies! 

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