The Insider

Nov 10, 1999 at 12:00 am

An indicting news story - whose issues are imbedded in America’s collective (read: TV) mind – is a surefire starting point for a movie. Its potential drawing power is enhanced by the built-in guarantee to at least hit a nerve already exposed by the media’s probing around the insides of social consciousness.

Portraying fact as fiction is a challenging venture with higher stakes, it seems, in a country where the suspension of disbelief is a semipermanent state – where the makers of "ER" decide to make the information on their show more accurate, because viewers are picking medical advice out of the dialogue.

Michael Mann’s The Insider is a political thriller that plays the fictionalized reality game. Because of its audience and its subject – a Brown & Williamson executive whose inside scoop on dangerous carcinogens being added to cigarettes was taped and then suppressed by CBS in 1995 – it lumbers along with a heavy load of social responsibility in tow.

As much as that fact makes the movie more compelling, it also gives it the feel of a shady documentary filled with good intentions that win the audience’s sympathy, but never its trust. After all, The Insider works on the paradox of whistle blowing on a whistle-blowing master, "60 Minutes."

For all its grand intentions and epic posturing – big themes and a running time of almost three hours – The Insider seems no more self-assured about its own identity than we are. Is it a record-length public service announcement or a chance to see the unfailingly great Al Pacino playing a shrewd yet altruistic version of "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman?

Bergman is the one who – in the movie at least – fleshes out tobacco executive Jeffrey Wigand’s (Russell Crowe) boat-rocking story and fights to get it aired. He even squares off on the issue with CBS veteran Mike Wallace, who is played by Christopher Plummer as a much smugger, egomaniacal reporter – jaunting around in safari jackets and condescending grins – than the "real" Wallace appears to be on television.

But is The Insider a movie pretending to be the news or the news pretending to be a movie?

More so than other films of its ilk, The Insider makes a clear bid for raised consciousness about deceptive media and corporate terrorism of consumers. But it even goes a step further with an attempt to avenge unknowing, victimized smokers – echoed in the wheezing gasps of Wigand’s young asthmatic daughter – by making CBS look like a bunch of cowards bowing down to the golf-playing corporate demons of Big Tobacco.

The Insider’s second challenge, then, is creating an acceptable picture of a picture, in a context that makes sense and justifies the political activism that belies the "entertainment" format that contains it. And, unfortunately, this particular flight of film fantasy, complete with a surreal moment where Wigand has hallucinatory visions of his two young daughters on a hotel room wall, isn’t even strong enough to convince us of facts we already know.

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