A Look Back: The Insider

Watching the first ten minutes of “The Insider,” when it was first released, I experienced a sense of dislocation – because it opens with a blindfolded Al Pacino being driven through the bustling streets of some Middle East country and then attempting to interview a shah, which does not seem to be remotely related to the Big Tobacco controversy that is the subject of the film. Also, the other star, Russell Crowe, is nowhere to be found. But that’s there to established that Al’s character: real life 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman, is a man of integrity and principles – both of which will shortly be tested, not just by the shah, but by the controversy surrounding smoking, which hinges (at least in the movie) on the testimony of Russell’s character: real life research chemist and ex-Big Tobacco employee, Jeffrey Wigand.

Al seeks out Russell to help him make sense of some scientific-y documents that he has been mailed anonymously. He soon realizes that Russell, who has just been let go from his job, has a much bigger story – but he signed a confidentiality agreement, so he can’t openly talk about whatever it is, or he’ll lose his family’s health insurance. However, Al prevails – and the fact that Big Tobacco steps up the pressure to remain moot even before Russell has said anything of substance is also a factor.  So although one of his kids has severe asthma, and his wife (Diane Verona, who has the most thankless role in the movie) would prefer him to find another corporate job so they can remain in their McMansion, Russell does reveal that yes, Big Tobacco is trying to cover up that cigarettes are hazardous to your health. Not only that, but they lied under oath when testifying before Congress. And so Russell agrees to appear on 60 Minutes, in which he’s interviewed by Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer).

Most whistleblower movies focus on at least a couple of secondary characters who are directly affected by the controversy in question, but here the focus is on Russell and Al. Often, the whistleblower’s relationship with his/her loved ones is shown to be strained, including any love interests introduced in the film, but here, Russell winds up divorced, and Al’s faith in the people who work in his profession also takes a sound beating. Everyone runs into pressure from someone else in often dramatic ways, but in the end, the truth comes out.

I recently read a review of “Concussion,” that compared it unfavorably to “The Insider” in terms of drama. Indeed “The Insider,” has more amped up confrontation scenes; and there’s less of a sense that Will Smith’s life is directly in danger or that he’s going to lose his wife and children. But it may just be that in “The Insider,” you get the sense that several of the main characters are Acting (though doing a great job), whereas in “Concussion,” the actors interacting with Will give more restrained performances.  Or maybe it’s because as time goes on, even movies that were mocked when they first came out, like “Jobs,” acquire belated respect. Who knows? But “The Insider” does stand the test of time.

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