Al Pacino Lights Up
If there’s one thing more dangerous to your health than smoking, it’s ratting on the cigarette industry in the media. Profound, responsible and sobering, The Insider is a complex and cinematically riveting film about one man’s courage to go public with information that blew the lid off the tobacco industry and a major television network’s cowardice in refusing to air the hottest story of the decade. Amazingly, it retains the truthful essence of a documentary while jolting you off balance with the brute force of a major suspense story full of mystery and intrigue.
Directed by Michael Mann, whose forte is underworld action adventures (TV shows such as Miami Vice and Crime Story , and the Pacino-De Niro gangster film Heat ), and co-written with Eric Roth, who won an Academy Award for Forrest Gump , this is a challenging and unsettling movie for the kind of thinking audience that demands more for its money than the usual brainless oatmeal served by Hollywood. It says a lot about integrity in journalism. It doesn’t say much for Mike Wallace or 60 Minutes . It leaves you both charged and furious.
Based on a controversial Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner called “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” the film has a number of three-piece, size-40 corporate villains and only two brave heroes. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) is a research scientist who has inside information on how the tobacco industry enhances nicotine addiction by secretly adding chemicals to cigarettes, consciously ignoring health precautions, lying to consumers about the hazards of smoking, and tripling their sales. Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) is the investigative reporter and segment producer for 60 Minutes who persuades him to breach his confidentiality agreement and blow the whistle on network television.
Mr. Wigand is a conflicted man of integrity who feels guilty about the sinister power cigarette manufacturers hold over smokers and the lies they spread to the American people about cancer, spending $600 million a year in legal advice and then using it to their own advantage. Through Mr. Bergman’s charismatic influence, he consents to a Mike Wallace interview, spills the beans with his insider’s knowledge, and in one brave act of public service wrecks his life, destroys his marriage and lands himself in a morass of lawsuits. Then, in one supreme act of spineless fear, CBS cancels his segment because it endangers the network’s merger with Westinghouse.
Even Mike Wallace sides with the network lawyers and defends the show’s decision to drop a potentially litigious “hot potato,” a decision he later reversed and has since come to regret. (In one of the film’s most persuasive, no-frills performances, Christopher Plummer plays the veteran newscaster with chilling warts-and-all honesty, never once stooping to mimicry or impersonation.) At the time, Mr. Wallace was anything but admirable, and there is a line in the film where he arrogantly bristles and defends his gutless decision to knuckle under to network pressure with: “I don’t plan to spend the rest of my days wandering in the wilderness of National Public Radio.” If Mr. Wallace really did say that, it’s a poor defense for compromising the integrity of the network that produced Edward R. Murrow, Eric Severeid and Walter Cronkite.
At this point, the adrenaline is already pumping like an Oklahoma wildcat gusher, but this two-and-a-half-hour movie is just shifting gears. Now it is the appalled Mr. Pacino’s turn to turn his own personal sense of betrayal into constructive outrage. According to the film, the Bergman character became an insider himself, turning the tables on CBS by giving Mr. Wigand’s exclusive to The New York Times to protect his source. The resulting scandal and the taped testimony CBS was finally shamed into airing
fueled 49 state lawsuits against the tobacco industry; the suits were eventually settled for $246 billion, and there is still no end to the fallout.
It’s a great story, and the filmmakers enhance it further by juxtaposing the parallel experiences of Mr. Wigand, who found himself sued, targeted in a national smear campaign, divorced and facing imprisonment, and Mr. Bergman, fighting to uphold his tough integrity and force CBS to honor its commitment to an innocent good Samaritan who had risked (and lost) so much already. It is next door to impossible for me to praise highly enough the vast complexity and brilliant realism with which scriptwriter Eric Roth and director Mr. Mann have distilled and illuminated so many divisive issues in a style that keeps the audience breathless and informed at the same time.
Filmed with the cloak-and-dagger tension of a noirish thriller, The Insider commands attention and keeps you thirsting for more revelations to come. Scene by scene, the excellent cast performs grippingly. Mr. Pacino may be the marquee lure, but it is Mr. Crowe who steals the picture, unrecognizable from his sexy, two-fisted cop role in L.A. Confidential , with no trace of his Australian accent. As impressive as Mr. Plummer is in the role of Mike Wallace, the great British actor Michael Gambon is even more astonishing as a serpentine American mouthpiece for the tobacco barons, Diane Venora and Lindsay Crouse are perfect as long-suffering wives, and Gina Gershon, in a far cry from her slut portfolio, is chilling as an icy CBS lawyer obsessed with feminist control in a man’s domain.
The Insider is that rare attempt by dedicated filmmakers to uplift, educate, entertain and fire the curiosity about a historic social issue regardless of what the profit potential might be. It is a mature, polished, skillfully researched and carefully examined footnote to millennium-cusp history that tells us something valid and thoughtful about the way we live now while making a little cinematic history of its own.
Tortured Lovers à la Hardy
In the clutch of new releases, don’t miss a haunting British import called Dreaming of Joseph Lees . Its turbulent psychological torments and mordant longings on the windswept Isle of Man are set in 1958, but the rugged landscape and tortured, star-crossed lovers remind me more of Thomas Hardy. The fascinating newcomer Samantha Morton plays Eva, a spinster who lives a dull life working as a secretary in a sawmill and daydreaming of her one great unrequited love for a handsome cousin named Joseph Lees (Rupert Graves) whom she has not seen since she was 14.
Out of loneliness, boredom and sexual need, she moves in with Harry (Lee Ross), a pig farmer whose adoration is never reciprocated. When Joseph returns from Italy after losing his leg in a quarry, Eva’s dreams are finally realized and her passion consummated, but Harry is too weak and dependent to live without her. Harry’s tragic suicide attempt is botched, and Eva is left with two invalids to take care of instead of one, and a bleak future that is left up to the viewer to decide.
This may sound like melodrama, but the rich cinematography and the deeply wounding sincerity of the performances keep it on the boil. Rupert Graves, most recently seen opposite Natasha Richardson in the Broadway production of Closer , is one of the most appealing and versatile of Britain’s new stars, not to be confused with the swishy, overrated Rupert Everett. Samantha Morton, soon to be seen stealing Woody Allen’s new film Sweet and Lowdown , is an Emily Watson look-alike with a face right out of 1930’s ads for Lydia Pinkham’s beauty creams.
Who Wants to Be Malkovich?
Last, and definitely least, there is Being John Malkovich , an exasperatingly precocious one-joke idea that collapses after the first 20 minutes and drags on numbingly, substituting conceit for substance. John Cusack plays an unemployed puppeteer who goes to work as a file clerk on one-half of an office building floor where everyone has to bend over to reach the water cooler. Behind his filing cabinet, he discovers a rabbit hole through which you can slide into the brain of John Malkovich, the bald, cross-eyed actor with a voice like an unbroken dial tone. The entire cast, which includes Cameron Diaz in an ugly dung-brown wig, Orson Bean and Catherine Keener, takes turns and ends up on the other side of a New Jersey freeway.
Even for freaks who are willing to pay for Terry Gilliam movies, there’s one insurmountably fatal flaw in this wreckage: Who in his own right mind would want to spend one day, one hour, or one minute in the brain of Mr. Malkovich? Directed by somebody with the audacity to call himself Spike Jonze, this hyperthyroidal exercise in loopiness only reminds me how much more I prefer the zaniness of the real Spike Jones, with or without his City Slickers, but the people raving about Being John Malkovich don’t even know what I’m talking about.