Big Tobacco Vs. Big Media: 60 Minutes as Tower of Jell-O

Michael Mann’s The Insider , from a screenplay by Eric Roth and Mr. Mann, based on an article by Marie Brenner, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” has been trivialized in the public’s mind by all the tabloid gossip about what Mike Wallace thought of Christopher Plummer’s screen approximation, what Don Hewitt felt about Philip Baker Hall’s portrayal of the CBS honcho as a tower of Jell-O, what Al Pacino thought about Mr. Wallace’s frosty reaction to the film, what Mr. Wallace thought about Mr. Pacino’s comments ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Not surprisingly, therefore, I came late to the movie with a strong premonition of déjà vu . After all, the tobacco company scandal is old hat, and movies purportedly about real people are considered guilty of excessive melodramatization until proven otherwise. What I didn’t expect was an intelligently absorbing entertainment that ran for two hours and 40 minutes, during which I didn’t once look at my watch-just about the highest praise I can bestow upon a film these days. The acting is all first-rate, most notably Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand, the whistle-blower who is left out to dry for daring to tell the truth about nicotine delivery systems disguised as cigarettes; Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman, the radical producer who stands up to the corporate pressures; Gina Gershon as Helen Caperelli, the smooth-as-silk power lawyer who embodies all the repressive evils of merger-mania capitalism, and even Mr. Plummer who begins by caricaturing Mr. Wallace and ends up humanizing him as an aging professional hanging on for dear life to all his well-earned perks.

Similarly, Mr. Crowe’s deeply felt Wig-and is no pure white knight of probity and integrity, but a onetime self-deceiving health product scientist hired by the tobacco industry for window dressing and then blithely ignored when profits were at stake. Mr. Mann and his co-scenarist Mr. Roth take their own sweet time letting the morally relativistic arguments-pro and con-find full expression through articulate characters such as we seldom encounter these days in mainstream movies.

The point is that The Insider hits too close to home for me to dismiss it as a dated piece of muckraking about such familiar causes as freedom of expression, the First Amendment and journalistic integrity. Indeed, The Insider has been likened to Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) and even Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994). What makes The Insider more profound and penetrating than either of its moralizing predecessors is its subversive suggestion that even those of us in the media who still cling to an ideal of intellectual independence find ourselves increasingly manipulated by the matrix of multinational corporate power. The thoroughly legal power of Brown & Williamson to threaten Wigand with incarceration for not honoring a confidentiality contract casts a totalitarian pall over the proceedings. The far-reaching tentacles of the company extended to the local police forces in the tobacco states, and even the local branches of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Sure, on the health issue posed by nicotine there have been countervailing political forces at work to overcome the arrogance of the tobacco companies. Yet, the growing threat of corporate fascism is an insidious one, and the comparatively optimistic ending of The Insider cannot banish the suspicion that a Capitalist version of George Orwell’s Communist Big Brother in 1984 is waiting to be born in some corporate boardroom. After all, even many of our most radical muckrakers are working for fewer and fewer people.

Mr. Plummer’s Mike Wallace gets a laugh when he says that he doesn’t want to end up working for National Public Radio. My broadcasts appear on WNYC and NPR, and I hardly think that is a fate worse than death, but I get the point. My influence, if any, is tolerably marginal for the powers that be. And as long as I get a few crumbs of creature comfort from the system, I can be counted on not to make too much of a fuss about the growing concentration of economic power. Consciously or unconsciously, the makers of The Insider have alerted me, at least, to the dangers of a comfortable complacency about the way things are going. Unfortunately, like most of the people around me, I am too busy making a living and a life to do much of anything constructive to reverse current trends toward the total Mammonization of our lives. In this context of abject futility, The Insider can serve as a vicarious wake-up call of great histrionic distinction.

Tired Festival Oozings

Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta won the Palme d’ Or and the Best Actress Award at the 1999 Cannes International Film Festival, and has been generally well received over here for its alleged artistry and social conscience. I say “alleged” because I find the film too oppressively miniaturized and abstract for my taste, and I find the central character Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) too much of a poster child for deprived teenagers with alcoholic mothers living in trailer parks the world over. The camera never strays far from Rosetta and her obsessive search for employment. It is as if the Dardenne brothers were determined to push her in our face with few opportunities to look away from her few humorless, oxlike expressions. This is to make sure that we get the point, which, I suppose, is that we are all to blame for the state of affairs that makes this young girl behave so strangely and, at the climax, so dishonorably. The film ends with a closeup of her tearful remorse.

Just as The Insider is everything I like in a political film, Rosetta is everything I dislike: simplistic allegory, ritualistic monotony, minimal exposition and argument in the service of a supposedly timeless universality, the absence of any inner life or spiritual consolation. Why then did I admire La Promesse (1996), the previous film of the Dardenne brothers, as much as I deplore Rosetta ? I suppose I found La Promesse more complex in its motivations, more recognizably realistic in its racial and social alignments, more heroic and romantic in its moral epiphany. Anyway, .500 is not a bad batting percentage for films that try to say something.

Robert Kane Pappas’ Some Fish Can Fly manages to emerge as a funny, bittersweet, luminous love story despite the handicap of its being interrupted and distracted by a Pirandellian subplot concerning the hero’s problems in making a movie about his “real-life” romance. The financial and emotional agonies of making a movie is the most tired subject oozing out of Sundance these days. Fortunately, Mr. Pappas is more adept in the casting of Some Fish Can Fly than in fashioning its overall continuity.

The very talented though unfamiliar Kevin Causey and Nancy St. Alban play Kevin and Nora, who meet and fall in love in New York but who have difficulties sustaining their relationship when she returns to Cork County, Ireland. As Kevin narrates at the beginning of the relationship, “I think it goes back to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra , Antony’s fighting Caesar at sea for control of the known world, and Antony’s girlfriend Cleopatra is in a boat nearby. Just when it looks like Antony is getting a slight advantage over Caesar, Cleopatra turns her boat around and takes off. What does Antony do? He turns his boat around and chases after Cleopatra, deserting his own army. He’d rather chase Cleopatra than conquer the world.”

Kevin and Nora meet on a very unpromising blind date, go back to his apartment for a seven-hour kiss, at the end of which Nora is still a virgin-the kind who has slept with many men, but who has gone to bed with none. This intermediate level of passionate courtship is the most interesting aspect of the film in that it doesn’t play puritanically at all. Quite the contrary. When Kevin finally breaks through Nora’s Irish-seminary-girl’s defenses, it is no big deal, and both parties know that the real struggle to stay together forever is just beginning. And a struggle it is-all the way to the end, which I shall not give away, if, indeed, I have not done so already.

I don’t want to jinx Ms. St. Alban and Mr. Causey by noting that they look like real comers. This applies especially to Ms. St. Alban since too many of my current pinup girls of the heart have not done very well in their choices of projects. Big Tobacco Vs. Big Media: 60 Minutes as Tower of Jell-O