erasing clouds

Cinematic Pleasures: The Insider

by j.d. lafrance

Based on actual events, The Insider (1999) concerns Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a research scientist fired from his job at large tobacco company Brown and Williamson for refusing to go along with company policy. By voicing his displeasure, Wigand had apparently violated his extensive confidentiality agreement that forbade him from talking about anything to do with the company. Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer for the television news magazine 60 Minutes persuaded Wigand to tell his story. In his interview, Wigand accused then president of Brown and Williamson, Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon), of perjury when he and other tobacco CEOs told Congress that they did not believe nicotine was addictive. CBS intervened and threatened to kill the Wigand interview because they feared a threatening multibillion dollar lawsuit from Brown and Williamson which would kill a pending sale of CBS to Westinghouse Electric. Wigand's character was slandered in the public and Bergman had to refute of all the claims and find a way to get the interview back on the air and intact.

When Mann was in post-production on Heat (1995), Bergman was going through the events depicted in The Insider. Bergman discussed his trials and tribulations with Mann. Mann remembers that "the conflicts were large-scale, and the material promised the availability of an intimate human story in a context of very large issues." Mann knew of Bergman's reputation as a man of his word and was intrigued. They met in 1989 and talked about a few projects but nothing happened. Over the years the two men kept in touch, talking about Bergman's experiences and at one point Mann was interested in doing a movie on an arms merchant in Marbella that Bergman knew. Mann first conceived of what would become The Insider (then known only as "The Untitled Tobacco Project") between the Wigand-lite aired interview in November 1995 and February 1996, when the segment aired in its entirety and Bergman was asked to leave 60 Minutes.

With a budget set at $68 million, Mann began collecting a massive amount of documents to research the events depicted in the film: depositions, news reports and 60 Minutes transcripts. He had read a screenplay that Eric Roth had written, called The Good Shepherd, about the first 25 years of the CIA. Based on this script, Mann approached Roth to help him co-write The Insider. Mann and Roth wrote several outlines together and talked about the structure of the story. Roth interviewed Bergman numerous times for research and the two men became friends. After he and Mann wrote the first draft together, at the bar at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica, Roth met Wigand. The whistle blower was still under his confidentiality agreement and would not break it for Roth or Mann. Roth remembered his first impressions of Wigand were that "I didn't like him very much. He's unlikable, prickly. He's kind of cold. A little off-putting...I think he was defensive. He doesn't know me from Adam. Why should he trust me?"

As they continued to write more drafts, the two men made minor adjustments in chronology and invented some extraneous dialogue but also stuck strictly to the facts whenever possible. However, Mann and Roth were not interested in making a documentary. Mann said in an interview:

"Eric Roth and I decided we wanted to do a drama and not just a docudrama. I didn't want it to be objective, I wanted to take you on a ride being Jeffrey Wigand and Lowell Bergman, because I know that these men got seared by this experience, and it was tremendously dramatic."

Furthermore, Mann explained that in the "realm of drama, you change everything. You change everything to have it mean exactly the same thing it meant before. You do all the typical things. You collapse time, you combine characters, you overlay dramatic events."

Mann wanted to cast Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand after seeing him in L.A. Confidential (1997). The director thought that the actor's performance in the movie "was by design very tense and monochromatic. This is a very different part, an operatic performance of the most intimate psychological dynamics."

Mann flew Crowe down from Canada where he was in the middle of filming Mystery, Alaska (1999) on the actor's one day off and had him read scenes from The Insider screenplay for two to three hours. When Crowe read the scene where Wigand finds out that the 60 Minutes interview he did will not be aired, he captured the essence of Wigand so well that Mann knew he had found the perfect actor for the role. Still, the actor was apprehensive at playing someone much older than himself when there were so many good actors in that age range. Crowe remembers that "Mann put his hand on my chest and says, 'I'm not talking to you because of your age. I'm talking to you because of what you have in here.'"

Once Crowe was cast, he and Mann spent six weeks together before shooting began, talking about his character and his props, clothes and accessories. Crowe was impressed by the director's commitment to work:

"He works really long hours and he's extremely intense. But he works on the principles that I've tried to hold to in what I do: detail and collaboration....The bottom line is, he cares. And there's that kind of forthrightness about him."

Crowe put on 35 pounds for the role, shaved back his hairline, bleached his hair seven times and had a daily application of wrinkles and liver spots to his skin to transform the actor into Wigand. It was important to him that he put on the pounds because it gave him insight into what Wigand was going through at the time. Crowe was not able to talk to Wigand about his experiences because he was still bound to his confidentiality agreement during much of film's development period. To get a handle on the man's voice and how he talked, Crowe listened repeatedly to a six-hour tape of Wigand.

Al Pacino was Mann's only choice to play Lowell Bergman. He wanted to see the actor play "an intellectual worker," who is world-wise - it was a role that the director had never seen him do in a movie before. Pacino, who had worked with Mann previously in Heat, was more than willing to take on the role. To research for the film, Mann and Pacino hung out with reporters from Time magazine and spent time with ABC News. Pacino suggested Mann cast Christopher Plummer in the role of Mike Wallace. Pacino had seen the veteran actor on the stage many times and was a big fan of Plummer's work. Mann had also wanted to work with Plummer since the '70s. Pacino told Mann to watch Plummer in Sidney Lumet's Stage Struck (1958) and afterwards he was the director's only choice to play Wallace - Plummer did not have to audition. He met with Mann and after several discussions was cast in the film.

One of Mann's strengths is how he conveys expositional dialogue. This is very difficult without boring the audience who is conditioned to tune out during long, talky scenes. The scene between Bergman and Wigand in a Japanese restaurant is the centerpiece of the film, much in the same way that the Lecktor/Graham conversation in Manhunter and the Hanna/McCauley restaurant scene in Heat are important because they all represent the meeting of the driving forces of their respective films. The characters meet, verbally spar with each other, conveys, either implicitly or explicitly, their worldview and most important sort things out between each other.

Crowe is excellent in this scene as he reacts to Bergman asking him to list all the bad things he's done in his life that could be used against him in the media. Crowe looks down as if embarrassed. He hunches over defensively with his hands together and is visibly upset as he nervous pauses between each incidence or the way he pushes back his glasses with his middle finger every so often, and his jerky head movements. The tics and mannerisms are so believable here.

The Insider is a film about how these two men justify themselves in the eyes of their peers and their family. Bergman has to struggle with going commercial: the soft approach for a bigger audience versus critical stories on big topics for a smaller public. One could read this as a dilemma for Mann himself: how does he feel directing a multi-million dollar production about big tobacco for another big company like Disney. One of the questions that the film poses is how far can you go? Are you willing to sell out or can you remain true to your beliefs regardless of the external opposition and internal pressure?

The characters in The Insider are not dodging bullets or getting into car chases on a daily basis. They have to worry about real issues and this gives the movie a ring of honesty to it.

Pacino attests to the value of underplaying his role (much as he did in Donnie Brasco and Insomnia). It is a very thoughtful, careful performance that does not resort to his usual over-the-top pyrotechnics evident in Heat and Devil's Advocate (1997). Admittedly, those roles featured larger-than-life characters, whereas with The Insider Pacino is playing a real person and is therefore responsible to play it more realistic.

To help get in character, Pacino met Bergman and found him to be "quietly intense. I saw him the other night, and I almost went by him...He looks the same but he has a way of blending because he's had a lifetime of that as a reporter." Meeting the man helped the actor towards creating his version of the journalist. Mann and Pacino were very conscious of not letting the actor go off on any out-of-character outbursts. As Mann remembers:

"There were many times when some vintage Al Pacino moments were happening and I'd look at him and he'd look at me and we'd both reject it. He'd say, "I felt myself acting, it's no good, let's do it again.""

This is evident in the scene where Bergman meets again with Hewitt, Wallace and, this time, Eric Kluster (Stephen Tobolowsky), the head of CBS News. He suggests that an alternate version of the Wigand interview be done, just in case. When Bergman refuses Kluster says that the alternate will be done with or without him, which causes Bergman to say, "Since when has the paragon of investigative journalism allowed lawyers to determine the news content on 60 Minutes." Then, Bergman uses his trump card: the sale between CBS and Westinghouse - that will make CBS executives like Kluster very rich - could be threatened by a nasty lawsuit from Brown and Williamson. Pacino really shines in this scene as he defiantly stands up to Kluster and lays it all out: 60 Minutes is being compromised and pressured by internal forces.

"And Jeffrey Wigand who's out on a limb, does he go on television and tell the truth? Yes. Is it newsworthy? Yes. Are we gonna air it? Of course not. Why? Because he's not telling the truth? No. Because he is telling the truth. That's why we're not gonna air it. And the more truth he tells, the worse it gets."

The temptation for Pacino to go over the top in this scene is great but he keeps it contained. He is angry but does not chew up the scenery. And then he goes in for the kill when Hewitt doesn't back him up. He rages, "What are you? Are you a businessman or are you a newsman?" It is a rhetorical question because it is obvious what he is. Then, Bergman looks at Wallace to back him up but he does not. The look on Pacino's face says it all: shock and amazement. Instead of exploding as we expect Pacino to do, he says nothing and just leaves the room. He plays against expectation. We expect the typical Pacino explosion but he does not go for it.

Trouble began before The Insider was even released. Hewitt and Wallace accused Mann of extreme dramatic license and working with Bergman to transform him into a hero at the expense of the two men. They also said that Bergman negotiated a movie deal with Mann while the case was still going on. They claimed that Bergman was frequently on the phone with Mann and took notes during all CBS meetings.

Wallace, in particular, was upset that the film would not portray him in the most flattering way. He had read an early draft of the script and objected to how quickly he changed his mind and publicly criticized CBS. Mann and Roth agreed to make some changes to the screenplay. Despite revisions, Wallace continued to voice his concerns in the Los Angeles Times and Brill's Content that he would be portrayed unfairly in the movie. Wallace told The New York Times, "If this is entertainment, why does he use my name and have words come out of my mouth that I never would have said?" However, Mann felt that Wallace went too far. "I respect Mike Wallace; I've watched him my whole life. But this motion picture is not about Mike Wallace, and I don't care to see what we did being hijacked into an issue about public image and vanity." Furthermore, Mann felt that Wallace didn't like the movie "because it makes him seem too human; he has this idea of what his image ought to be which is very adamantine and two-dimensional."

After The Insider was released, Brown and Williamson accused the Walt Disney Company of distorting the truth. They took out a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal to counter promotional appearances Wigand and those associated with the film were doing. The tobacco company also had representatives at screenings in eight cities handing out cards asking patrons to call a toll-free number that would answer questions about the film.

Brown and Williamson sent at least one cautionary letter to Disney concerning The Insider without even seeing the film. Their problems with the movie came from two scenes: one where Wigand finds a bullet in his mailbox with a threatening note and a scene where Wigand is trailed by a menacing figure at a golf range. Wigand actually reported the first event - although, an FBI agent, who investigated the incident, suggested in a federal affidavit that Wigand might have put the bullet there himself. Mann has acknowledged that the "second scene is fiction, created for dramatic effect."

Mann received the largest amount of positive reviews of his career for The Insider. Brian Johnson of Macleans magazine wrote that it was "the best investigative thriller since All the President's Men dramatized the Watergate scandal 23 years ago." He also wrote that "for all its surface style, however, The Insider goes deep, penetrating the corporate mind-set that has sacrificed news to infotainment."

One of the few less than ecstatic reviews came from J. Hoberman of the weekly alternative newspaper, The Village Voice. He criticized the film for "confusing self-importance with importance," and wrote that Mann "inflates his potentially nifty thriller with superfluous scenes extra-padded by wasted motion." When Hoberman did praise the film it was in a backhanded way. He wrote that "the movie is stolen by Christopher Plummer's hilarious Mike Wallace impersonation...His Wallace is the most naturalistic character in the film." One of the most insightful reviews came from Manohla Dargis of the L.A. Weekly who recognized that "the issue at its heart is free will - to smoke, to make right and wrong decisions, to sell out, to not sell yourself out and everyone along with you." She went on to also praise "Plummer's fiendish read on Wallace," and how it "makes it hard to imagine ever looking at the newsman with a straight face again."

Despite an aggressive promotion campaign that even saw Rosie O'Donnell promoting The Insider on three of her shows in one week (interviewing Pacino, Plummer and Wigand), and opening in more than 1,600 theatres, the movie failed to pull in big bucks at the box office.

Looking back on The Insider, Bergman found that "overall, it's an accurate representation of what happened emotionally, psychologically and in terms of the issues and the forces that were at work at the time. It's not a documentary, though." Bergman is currently a producer for the PBS show Frontline and a professor at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. In the long run, he feels that the movie gave him "a reputation for integrity, which I like, and it has given me too much credit for things that other people did as well." In retrospect, Wigand felt that the film "was 100 percent on target, at least for me...I want my children to see it with me. I mean, they're proud. Terribly proud." Wigand now directs Smoke Free Kids.

The Insider is Mann's masterpiece because it represents the perfect union of his highly stylized mise-en-scene with his thematic pre-occupations. The style never overwhelms the content. The movie also shows an evolution in his themes. Once again, a protagonist's family life is destroyed as a result of his professional nature but in this case it was for the greater good. Wigand did what he did because he felt that the American public had a right to know that cigarettes were purposely made to be addictive. In doing so, he sacrificed his own happiness and security.

Issue 27, October 2004

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