The Insider (1999)

Dir. Michael Mann. Starring Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer

There are home goods chains with fewer lighting options than Mann makes use of in The Insider. Indoor lighting, outdoor lighting, faded out darkness, microscopic clarity, shadows, penumbras, pore-gazing well-lit closeups, the works. This is a truly omnivorous movie for lighting, and they primarily shine on Wigand (Crowe), whose life is as unrelatable and unreal for us watching the movie as the lights which fall on him. At a driving range, his face and body are blue under the harsh lights keeping the range just bright enough for him to knock his anxiety into golf ball after golf ball. The green of the turf is alien. In the distance, pinpricks of light shining from an octopus of a car retrieving the balls meander. But he is not alone under these blue lights: another man, still wearing his suit jacket, has a pretty fair swing himself and is sending those orbs into orbit. Wigand has not been on the path to revealing what he knows about Brown and Williamson’s malfeasance for all that long, but the paranoiac strain within him is already active. He makes eye contact with the man. The man makes eye contact back at him. He’s clearly one of the many faceless men sent out by Brown and Williamson or, perhaps, by some other tobacco company; who can imagine the depth of solidarity of such a cabal against a single man? Wigand’s lights are not quite as showy as that again, although a blue in that same genus fills the courtroom in Mississippi where he gives a deposition which endangers his return to the state of Kentucky. If that man on the driving range who made it very clear without changing his posture or expression was a threat, it’s nothing compared to the lawyer whose arrogance fills the room as much as the fluorescent lights do. He tells Wigand point blank that he should not answer the question that his opposite number, Motley (Bruce McGill), has posed; Wigand has “contractual obligations” which prevent him from speaking out, and a court in Kentucky has placed a “temporary restraining order” on him. “That means,” the lawyer translates with the venomous frustration we typically save for used car salesmen or smarmy teenagers, “you don’t talk!” Motley dresses down this other lawyer, poses his question again, and Wigand, as if no one has been yelling in his immediate vicinity, answers it. But the fluorescent light makes him look as wan and tired as Russell Crowe can appear, and that blue light does a great deal of that work for him.

We see him in warmer light as well, although it typically serves to remind us how isolated and endangered he is even when he’s in settings he likes. Wigand makes a show out of ordering in Japanese at a Japanese restaurant in front of Bergman (Pacino), even though all he gets them is tempura. It’s a private room where they can speak frankly with one another, and in this zone where Wigand feels some stability he feels comfortable enough to psychoanalyze the temperamental 60 Minutes producer; the producer does not much care for it, and ultimately makes the safe place feel much less than that when he point blank asks Wigand what he intends to do. Later on, we see Wigand in his chemistry classroom, a place where he seems equally at ease despite his newness to the profession. (His previous stops before high school: Johnson & Johnson, Union Carbide, Pfizer, Brown and Williamson. More illustrious than a chemistry classroom, to be sure, and to editorialize a little bit, there’s a reason two of those companies no longer exist and the other two are synonymous with the corruption of healthcare corporations in this country.) It’s a scene that has always stood out to me: he manages to get the kids laughing a little, and for a man who guards his privacy as far as he is able, who is being hounded and ground down by huge companies, he is surprisingly open with them. Telling teenagers how magical chemistry is seems like a good way to get said teenagers to make fun of you for the next 179 days of school, and yet with them it seems to come off. This classroom is darker than the private room at the Japanese restaurant but still tinged with autumnal colors. He may feel fairly good about the chemistry after everything else, but it’s doubtless a fall from the corporate success he has had in the past.

The Insider, like just about every other movie with journalists made in the past forty years, is a response to All the President’s Men. It’s not quite as pessimistic as Spotlight was, a movie which recognizes that the Boston Globe managed to break open an enormous scandal while simultaneously changing very little about the Catholic Church’s position on its rapist priests. Yet The Insider does something different from All the President’s Men and Spotlight, which is to make its main character and its moral center someone outside journalism. All the President’s Men isn’t about Deep Throat or Judy Miller: it’s about Woodward and Bernstein. Spotlight puts its focus through Robby Robinson and uses Sacha Pfeiffer and Mike Rezendes as our compasses. But in The Insider, both of those roles are filled by Jeffrey Wigand. Certainly Lowell Bergman matters on both fronts, but there’s always a little too much mercenary in his blood. He’s one of those old-fashioned journalism types who would give up his left nut for a story, his right to uphold the ethics of the trade, and a hypothetical middle one to be able to pontificate on those things until the kingdom comes. Wigand has a fair point when he accuses Bergman of using him as an object for the “voyeurism” of those frequently mentioned thirty million viewers, and surely that quote must be ringing through Bergman’s mind when, at a low point, he dismisses his life’s work as “infotainment.”  Wigand is, despite his several flaws—the temper and the drinking and the mysterious ex-wife all come to mind, but nothing quite tops the fact that he didn’t talk to his wife that he intended to tape a segment for 60 Minutes after she wandered into a death threat extended to the whole family—the hero of this story.

The degree, the intellect, the money, the golf handicap, and so on are all meant to be proof that he is an exceptional man, and perhaps that’s so. But he spends the majority of this movie breaking under incredible pressure being levied against him by his enemies and allies alike. He comes to Mississippi to give a deposition, but the lawyers wait to tell him that he may not be able to return to Kentucky and stay out of prison until he’s already there. His wife Liane (Diane Venora) would clearly prefer for him to go along to get along at his high-paying job, and does not take to any of the developments from his firing on with any sort of aplomb. (Again, it’s worth noting that he doesn’t seem to think it’s worth it to talk to his wife with any kind of seriousness, and while the movie never gets to Sissy Spacek in JFK levels of uselessness, there’s a reason the comparison holds.) Even Bergman’s primary ways to spur him into action have more to do with jostling him than nudging him, and there’s a hot minute where it looks like all that jostling is going to be for naught. What Wigand has that sets him apart from everyone else in the movie is a sort of reflexive courage. More than once his bad temper comes up in the movie, and it’s that same bad temper that pushes him away from the safety of his severance package and towards the danger of CBS News. He comes home to find a bullet in his mailbox and his wife carrying the kids out into the yard, sobbing about the death threat she’s intercepted in his e-mail. His response is to call Bergman and tell him that he intends to film a segment. Later on, as he’s weighing the choice to really ruin his life and potentially his daughters’ futures, he tells Bergman that he doesn’t even have the “criteria” that would help him make a decision to testify. It’s a line handled really well by Crowe, who makes the sentence jittery to show how this powerfully ordered man is entirely scrambled. But in the end, he decides to go on the record for no stated reason. It’s a gut choice, one which is beyond braininess or cleverness. To do the right thing, the other major characters in this movie, especially the ones in the news business, have to be taught. Bergman gets some “perspective,” to use his wife’s words, after seeing how fully Wigand commits to blowing the whistle. Mike Wallace (Plummer) has to be shamed by a New York Times editorial, and then the rest of CBS has to be shamed by Mike Wallace. The Insider still sees journalism as a public good that can change hearts and minds and instituions—Spotlight is only so sure about the first two of those three—but it doesn’t see journalism as some wellspring of righteousness. In The Insider, heroism is for the ones taking the risk, not the ones turning it into copy.

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