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The Insider

Great, But Too Much

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Michael Mann

Written by Eric Roth and Michael Mann, based on the article by Marie Brenner

With Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora

The Insider is based on a real story, and it’s a great one. Its adaptation (screenplay by Eric Roth and Michael Mann) is superb, bringing the exciting drama to the forefront of attention. On the other hand, Mann doesn’t seem to trust the inherent power of his own screenplay, diluting the impact by essentially over-directing the movie.

The Insider squarely rests on the shoulders of two excellent actors: Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential) and Al Pacino. Crowe plays Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a recently fired research scientist at Brown and Williamson tobacco company. Now he’s left without a job, with a badly hurt dignity, with a restrictive confidentiality agreement -- and with some information that might be highly damaging to his former employers. Pacino is Lowell Bergman, the producer of 60 Minutes, who tries to get Wigand to tell the truth on his show.

The story hits the bull’s eye of public consciousness, and it provides some gripping sequences. It illustrates the inner workings of big corporations, both the tobacco industry (which can hardly gain any admirers from people who see The Insider) and newscasting. The film gives a detailed account of the use of jurisprudence as a corporate tool, and acts as a keenly observant character drama.

While the events themselves are interesting, the character aspect is nothing less than utterly gripping. Crowe is amazing, playing his character as anything but a white knight who takes on the evil system. Wigand is a sullen, heavy drinker, given to temperamental outbursts, and, generally, nobody’s idea of a hero. Which is fine, of course: the tale of such moral complexity won’t work if it labeled everybody as a hero or as a villain. In Wigand’s case, what’s even more interesting is the fact that his gradually increasing moral fortitude stems precisely from his less-than-admirable personality. This complexity is never sacrificed: even in the end, he is one complicated human being.

Pacino’s part is slightly simpler but just as interesting. For the first half of the movie, he’s more of a secondary character, and, playing a producer, he’s required to do more solid supporting work while staying in background. This actually works very well -- Pacino relaxes and is less prone to dramatic grandstanding.

There is also excellent interplay between these two, especially in their first scene together. Wigand, being asked by Bergman to collaborate, repeatedly and categorically refuses -- what he’s asking is for Bergman to convince him to tell the truth; and this character interplay is startling.

The supporting actors generally fare well (especially Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace, the star reporter on 60 Minutes) -- with one major exception. Diane Venora as Wigand’s wife is grating every minute she is on screen. And her character, while having thankfully little screen time, is very important (concern for his family is the first obstacle Wigand has to deal with), so her scenes border on painful and totally refuse to work.

There are a couple of extraneous subplots in The Insider (Middle East negotiations in the very beginning and the Unabomber details in the very end), but otherwise the screenplay is excellent. It is a miracle of shaping a messy real-life story into a concise and beautiful framework. By the end, when Bergman and Wigand become, essentially, mirrors of each other -- with each being he whistleblower in his own corporate world -- The Insider gains rare power.

And it really wasn’t necessary to augment this power with all those insanely complicated and idiosyncratic visuals. Mann’s visual vocabulary is vast, and he doesn’t hesitate to use it: there are numerous point-of-view shots, slow motion, shots with no ambient sound, frequent instances of large areas of the frame being intentionally out of focus, etc. There is nothing random behind this, and this is clearly not a desperate attempt to punch up a lackluster story; no, there’s a definite reason for each stylistic gesture. Once in a while, these visuals are breathtaking (like the rapidly panning view of the cemetery out of the window of a speeding car), and the final shot works as a visual rhyme, neatly encapsulating the film. The problem is, it gets tiring rather fast to look at all those complex visuals and think of what they communicate; and, at 157 minutes running time, this is entirely too much.

The over-the-top way The Insider is directed ends up, once in a while, even distracting; I wish Mann placed more trust in the power of the excellent story that he has.