Film Reviews

Tobacco Toad

In the eyes of the general public, Michael Mann is still best known for Miami Vice. He has received a great deal of critical acclaim for films about serial killers, Mohicans and bank robbers. So who would have guessed that his most engrossing and suspenseful film to date would be a story of corporate espionage and behind-the-scenes company politics, with nary a gunshot wound in sight?

Lest anyone misunderstand, The Insider is still very much a Mann film, full of slow buildups, extreme close-ups, wide shots of people standing in vast empty spaces and the abundant use of the color blue, among other cool tones. It's just that his battlefield has changed shape. Mann's use of action sequences has frequently been a metaphor for character conflicts anyway (in both Heat and Manhunter, the protagonist and antagonist barely even see each other face-to-face, yet we still feel that they know one another well by the end), and this time he's simply cutting out the middleman and going straight for the characters. Such a tactic may not make him as much money as before, but no doubt he's gambling that it will pay off in Oscars.

And pay off it should. Russell Crowe, long overdue for some kind of major acting award, plays Jeffrey Wigand, the man who blew the whistle on big tobacco company Brown and Williamson's conspiracy to keep its knowledge of deadly cigarette additives and nicotine addictiveness a secret. Given the opportunity to tell his story on 60 Minutes by veteran segment producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), Wigand risks jail time and a nasty smear campaign in order to get the word out. But he only gets to see CBS News cave in to corporate pressure and yank the inflammatory material at the last second, before it could reach the airwaves. There's no compelling antagonist figure in this story to match those of Mann's previous efforts (Tom Noonan, Wes Studi, Robert De Niro). So the chief dynamic relationship in the movie becomes the often shaky alliance between Wigand and Bergman, a relationship that is thrown into turmoil when Bergman's boss/partner, Mike Wallace, is added to the mix.

Ah, yes. Mike Wallace. Although he has not yet seen the film, Wallace has already been kicking up a storm about his portrayal on-screen. He even managed to persuade Mann to make some early script changes, though apparently not enough of them for his taste. Fortunately the character seems in no way compromised or slandered. As portrayed by Christopher Plummer, Wallace is easily the movie's most multidimensional and human character, as inspirational in some scenes as he is craven and contemptible in others. Yes, the character is obsessed with his legacy. Yes, he backs down from certain challenges. But he's believable. Like most of us, he's not always sure of the right thing to do, and he sometimes makes bad decisions. It's a complex role that may well redefine and reinvigorate Plummer's career, much as Ed Wood did Martin Landau's.

But what of the lead actor, Al Pacino? After Heat, many moviegoers rightfully have been wondering if Mann would be able to rein in Pacino's increasing tendency to yell key phrases at random and bug out his eyes in lieu of actual acting.

Worry no more. Pacino does get the occasional melodramatic "stand up and yell a righteous tirade" scene (somehow it's hard to imagine the real Bergman doing the same), but otherwise he is generally restrained and even subtle on occasion. Maybe, like Wallace, Pacino has begun to realize the importance of his legacy and wants to remind us that when the chips are down, he can still deliver on his youthful potential.

Crowe, Plummer and Pacino may command most of our attention, but as with Heat, Mann has loaded the cast with capable and talented actors in minor roles. There's Philip Baker Hall as producer Don Hewitt, Debi Mazar as Bergman's assistant, Michael Gambon as Brown and Williamson CEO Thomas Sandefur, B-movie hero Wings Hauser as a tobacco attorney, Pepsi girl Hallie Eisenberg as Wigand's daughter, Gina Gershon as a CBS lawyer and even Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore as himself.

The only weak link is Diane Venora as Wigand's self-centered wife, Liane, but that may not be entirely her fault. The Vanity Fair article ("The Man Who Knew Too Much," by Marie Brenner) upon which the movie was based describes the real-life wife as a shallow human being.

For a mainstream film coming from the Disney corporation, it is surprisingly liberal in its depiction of corporations and executives as money-obsessed skinflints who'll do anything to protect their interests, even (especially?) at the expense of average folk. Some at CBS have already accused the film of being partisan: No mention is made, for instance, of a Philip Morris lawsuit against Disney-owned ABC, a suit that may have been what made CBS News skittish in the first place.

On the other hand, the film also omits the fact that CBS owner Laurence Tisch had substantial tobacco holdings and was actually negotiating a deal at the time to buy the rights to some of Brown and Williamson's bargain brands. An additional dimension might have been added if more of Wigand's character flaws had been shown. Although Vanity Fair portrays him as a short-fused kinda guy, prone to lashing out at those close to him, the movie has him lose his temper only at moments that are absolutely justified. A real-life incident in which Wigand almost shoplifted a bottle of liquor would have been a great scene and given the character more human frailty, but alas, it just isn't there.

Even though the tobacco companies make for great real-life villains, and those who fight them real-life heroes, the good guy/bad guy setup of The Insider feels just a little too clean to have been drawn from reality. Still, the final product is great populist entertainment and may even leave audiences with a feeling of comfort, however fleeting, in the knowledge that corrupt corporations don't always win.

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Luke Y. Thompson