This thriller from Michael Mann deals with the cigarette industry, whistle-blowers and the media as top tobacco executive Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) tries to go public with damaging revelations. The legal minefield he finds himself in leads to strained relations between himself and Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), the producer of 60 Minutes, who plans to publicise the story.
While some aspects have been altered for dramatic reasons, this film is based very closely on real events, with real corporate logos and the names of real people. Pacino plays Bergman, who is still a prominent journalist in America, and this film was so quick to be made the actor is actually five years older than the real life man.
It goes to great lengths to film in a realistic way, and while I can’t account for the precise accuracy of events, it’s certainly a believable insight into a real life tale of corruption, scandal and litigation. With its focus on the media and journalism, this is as much about TV and information as it is about tobacco. More, in fact, as the actual revelations Dr Wigand makes take second place to the process of releasing them.
This is one of Crowe’s best performances as he is barely recognisable in his grey wig, becoming an Assange-esque figure: the prematurely grey lone crusader facing down the establishment. He plays the principled yet flawed Dr Wigand and brings to life the unassuming dignity of the character.
Less well drawn is his wife, Liane (Diane Venora), who is the typical nay-saying Mrs of many-a movie, bemoaning having to slightly downsize from her mansion when her husband loses his job. Again, I don’t know how accurate this is to real life, but when a film character has a go at her husband for washing his hands in the kitchen sink on the same day he’s received death threats it’s hard to have any sympathy for her.
Pacino is good, but feels too much like he’s doing Pacino when he should be doing Lowell Bergman. Many other actors would take on the voice and appearance of the person they are playing, even if not perfectly accurately. I know very little about Bergman but I doubt that he is this much like Al Pacino. A quick look around YouTube suggests he’s far more softly spoken and even tempered.
Another problem is that it feels a little too long. It’s tolerable primarily because most of its excess comes at the beginning, meaning it gets better as it goes through, and I’m sure its slow beginning is motivated by the admirable desire to stay true to real life events.
Overall The Insider succeeds where The Fifth Estate failed: to simultaneously show real events and make a gripping thriller. This feels like a story that could work even if it was fictional, something for which it deserves high praise indeed.