Having just reviewed arguably the greatest whistle-blower movie of all time, 'On the Waterfront,' I was anxious to evaluate the equally well regarded 'The Insider,' another ripped-from-the-headlines, true-life tale of one man standing up against a powerful syndicate. Michael Mann's incisive, spellbinding, but occasionally sluggish drama possesses an entirely different feel than the Brando classic, employing a methodical, slow-burn approach, but it strikingly illustrates how little things have changed in the intervening half-century regarding corporate corruption, manipulation, and intimidation. The tobacco executives depicted in 'The Insider' may be more civilized than their longshoreman counterparts in 'On the Waterfront,' but underneath their well-mannered skins, they're just as ruthless and vindictive as the barbaric thugs who ruled New York's docks back in the 1950s.
I remember watching Dr. Jeffrey Wigand's story unfold in real-time in 1995, as the wrongfully fired Brown & Williamson executive turned on his former company by courageously exposing the perjury of a number of tobacco industry executives. A parade of indignant CEOs marched before Congress, vehemently testifying under oath they were unaware of nicotine's addictive qualities when in fact their firms were actively developing methods to enhance the effects of nicotine in cigarettes and make the substance more easily absorbed by the human body. Wigand's explosive tell-all interview with journalist Mike Wallace on TV's '60 Minutes' blew the lid off the case, but a significant furor developed when the CBS news division buckled under pressure from its own corporate bigwigs and aired a watered-down version of the interview in an effort to deflect potential retaliatory tobacco industry lawsuits and preserve CBS's impending merger with Westinghouse. Once the paragon of television news, '60 Minutes' came under fire for its questionable ethics, and the resulting scandal garnered almost as much attention as Wigand's on-camera remarks.
'The Insider' meticulously details both affairs, and at times feels like two separate, bookended films. The drama's first half chronicles the journey of Wigand (Russell Crowe) from mild-mannered executive to reluctant - and heroic - snitch, thanks in part to the persuasiveness of '60 Minutes' producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who doggedly pursues him. It also insightfully depicts the unsettling effects Wigand's truth-telling has on his family, marriage, finances, psyche, and personal freedom. Threats from the tobacco industry incite a degree of paranoia in Wigand that Bergman can't assuage, and when his story is diluted by nervous, self-serving CBS executives, Wigand feels a palpable sense of betrayal.
The second half of the film shifts its focus to Bergman and his passionate crusade to broadcast the whole truth and nothing but. Maybe because I'm a journalist myself, I found this story thread more engrossing, as we witness the inner workings of a high-level news outfit and the backroom wrangling over journalistic standards and principles that influence the content and presentation of the news. This is where 'The Insider' really takes off, upping its dramatic ante and broadening its scope.
Mann has a penchant for crafting films with sizeable running times, and 'The Insider,' which clocks in at 157 minutes, ranks as one of his longest endeavors. Though the plot and performances generally hold our interest well, some judicious cuts would make the movie easier to digest without disrupting the deliberate pacing. Most of Mann's films rely on some sort of violence or action sequences to fuel their engines and balance the substantial character development that's a trademark element of the director's work, but none of that is present here. Words are the weapons, and the substantive exchanges often crackle with enough electricity to sustain any inert stretches.
Crowe's measured, understated performance keeps us involved during the film's slower beginning stages, despite our familiarity with the whistle-blowing theme. The actor earned an Oscar nomination for his work, but ironically he's not around much during the picture's more riveting second act. Though Pacino goes a bit overboard in his portrayal, his scenes with Christopher Plummer, who often channels the essence of Mike Wallace, and Philip Baker Hall, who portrays '60 Minutes' creator Don Hewitt, make us feel like a fly on the wall during a series of heated, high-level discussions covering an array of potent issues.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Cinematography, 'The Insider' came up empty on Oscar night, but remains a finely crafted motion picture that celebrates conviction, perseverance, and integrity. It may not wield as much impact as it did upon its initial release in 1999, but it holds up well, teaching us valuable lessons that will always be relevant in both the corporate and journalistic realms.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Insider' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for 'Red Widow' and the 25th anniversary edition of 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?', as well as an anti-tobacco PSA (of course!) immediately pop up, followed by the static menu with music.
Unlike other Michael Mann films, 'The Insider' isn't a flashy visual experience. A flat palette predominates throughout much of the film, but bursts of color, such as the yellow hues of taxi cabs and verdant greens of landscapes, add welcome vibrant accents to the film. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer remains faithful to the source material, with a layer of light grain lending the image a textured quality that ties in nicely with the gritty atmosphere Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti evoke. No specks or marks dot the pristine print, but contrast ranges from muted to bold, mirroring the attitudes and dilemmas afflicting the characters.
Blacks are solid and deep, though a bit of crush occasionally creeps into dense, shadowy scenes, and fleshtones, from Crowe's pasty complexion to Plummer's ruddiness, remain stable and true throughout the movie's course. Close-ups exhibit plenty of fine detail, and background elements are crisp and easy to discern. No banding, noise, or other annoyances crop up, and digital enhancements have been kept to a minimum. Spinotti received an Oscar nomination for his photography, and this transfer from Disney honors the subtlety of his work well.
A solidly mixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track adds body and expansion to this relatively quiet drama. Though the surrounds don't kick in very often, a good amount of front channel stereo separation widens the sound field and punches up various scenes. Atmospherics like wind, street noise, and thunder are subtly woven into the mix, and the track's broad dynamic scale handles the peaks and valleys of the music score with ease. In fact, the best surround moments come courtesy of the score, which fills the listening environment with pure, deep tones. Bass frequencies supply welcome weight, and though some of the dialogue is a bit muddled, most conversations are well prioritized and come through clearly.
Distortion is never an issue and no surface noise or other imperfections creep into the audio. Nuance is the name of the game here, as this unobtrusive track complements the action without calling much attention to itself.
Just a couple of negligible extras adorn this catalogue release, but there's a discrepancy between what's listed on the packaging and what's included on the disc. On the back of the Blu-ray case, there's mention of an audio commentary with Pacino and Crowe, as well as something called "Inside a Scene," however neither supplement shows up in the Bonus Features menu. On the flip side, a theatrical trailer is included on the disc, but not listed on the packaging.
Forthright, absorbing, and well-acted, 'The Insider' incisively profiles a corporate whistle-blower while exposing the corrupt nature of the tobacco industry and the ethical and political pressures facing television news. Though a bit drawn out and methodically paced, Michael Mann's film examines the issues in a thoughtful yet probing manner that makes the viewer feel like an insider, too. Strong video and audio transfers help immerse us in the quiet drama, but supplements are maddeningly thin and hardly befitting a film that garnered seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Still, this meticulously mounted production earns a solid recommendation.