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Review: “The Insider”

There’s something uncanny about watching a movie from the 90s. Everything feels so dated and a tad stale. The frettings and struttings of the drama seem, in turn, so quaint, as if their problems are not really that big of a deal at all (and of course, when it’s a Hollywood movie, even more so).

Yet it’s an uncanniness that comes with its own share of pleasures. I came across “The Insider” on Netflix’s Instant Play and turned it on almost by impulse. I had heard/read some good things about it, but that was a long time ago. “The Insider” (1999), despite its dated subject, is a riveting drama with some fine performances that have aged quite well on their own. Russell Crowe plays Jeffrey Wigand, a former tobacco executive who tries to muster up the courage to reveal the hidden, sordid agenda of Big Tobacco on “60 Minutes.” Al Pacino, who plays the producer for Mike Wallace’s show, is an idealist and a journalist that will go to any lengths to get that crucial interview broadcasted in the court of public opinion. And great lengths is exactly what it will take: not only does Crowe’s former company want to bully him into shutting up, but they’ve flexed their legal/financial muscle and have strong-armed CBS into balking at putting the interview on the air at all. Big Tobacco and Big News become a mega-money enemy that threatens the Truth and the Public, and after Crowe has sacrificed all to give the interview (his wife divorces him after he proceeds with the interview even after death threats to his family), it is up to Pacino to pull any strings possible to make Crowe’s sacrifice worth the trouble.

“The Insider” touches on two themes that are particularly interesting in today’s climate: whistleblowing and journalism. One of the on-going tensions of the film is all the hurdles–legal, financial, and even practical–that Wigand and Bergman have to leap to get his message out in the air. There was no Internet, no flash drives with private documents, and–most importantly–no WikiLeaks. Today, unleashing compromising evidence and confidential documents doesn’t require a news medium like “60 Minutes” to get its message out. There is now an instant-access conduit like WikiLeaks that is dedicated entirely to exposing secrets; journalists only play catch up, trying to analyze and sort through the trail of naked facts in order to make sense of it all. In some ways, you get the feeling that today’s journalists don’t have to grapple with the same expectations of integrity, fact-checking, and dependability that Bergman and other journalists have the movie have to deal with. Repeatedly, Bergman insists that either they have to broadcast the interview or protect Wigand or do a number of other things because “60 Minutes” is the most reliable, dependable, accurate news program out there. They have a responsibility to break stories and break them right. But reporters and producers rarely, it seems, “break” stories anymore: information is leaked, facts are tweeted, and journalists now just try to keep up with the deluge of information. This is a bit concerning: are there any gatekeepers in society anymore? But when you see the unending delays and obstances that keep hampering Wigand and Bergman, it’s scary to think how close it was that Wigand’s testimony never was aired and how much easier it could have happened in today’s climate.

One of the perks of watching this movie long after it was released is you know the trajectories these actors’ careers took after this film. In a way, “The Insider” captures the cross-point as Al Pacino slowly descends into irrelevance while Russell Crowe gives a brilliant performance that, as many predicted, would launch a very successful Hollywood career. Pacino’s character is pretty much exactly as you might imagine Pacino would play him: a strong-willed, left-wing idealist who is zealous for doing the right thing and who refuses to compromise his principles of protecting his sources, sticking to the truth, and not selling his soul by working for the Man (in case you didn’t see it coming: Pacino resigns at the very end of the movie; though CBS made the “right” choice in the end, he’s a renegade that will not compromise his integrity). While this makes Pacino’s character a hero, he becomes almost cartoonish as well: look closely and you can see the cape popping out from beneath his trench coat.

But Russell Crowe’s performance is what makes it all worth the 2.5 hours. Crowe plays Wigand much like he played John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind:” quiet, stiff upper-lip, and a tad eccentric. He’s a scientist-turned-corporate suit who is absolutely devoted to research and empiricism. His disgust for tobacco executives who care nothing for science (compounded by the fear of watching his daughter deal with asthma) leads him to butt heads with the top company players and he’s fired. His determination to get the sordid tale of tobacco’s awareness of smoking’s health risks is one part heroism, one part paternalism, and one part revenge. Without overplaying his hand, Crowe captures how these swirling priorities motivate him, even though–as his divorce makes painfully aware–they are not entirely harmonious. It’s nice to see Crowe’s work even before he made it big.

Long and short of it: “The Insider” is a fine movie, but if you’re not in for a blast from the past, find something a bit more current.

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