It is an unpleasant truth that conscience usually carries a cost. Behind every feel-good story of justice achieved is a check paid in blood or dishonor or cold, hard reproach. Few films have demonstrated that cost more cinematically than “The Insider,” director Michael Mann’s story of the real-life whistleblower who exposed deceptive and dangerous tobacco industry policy. The Oscar-nominated feature has finally been released on Blu-ray, almost fourteen years after its theatrical release.
Russell Crowe plays Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist fired from tobacco giant Brown and Williamson for refusing to sign off on shadowy practices that may threaten public health. He is slowly convinced to take his story public by “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), and the two men embark on a twisting and torturous journey to get the story out, challenged by big tobacco and Bergman’s own network, CBS. They find out that the truth isn’t always what the story is really about.
Adapting an article by journalist Marie Brenner entitled “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Mann and co-writer Eric Roth may have taken some liberties with chronology and personality in Wigand’s story, but in the service of creating an intricate and compelling story that manages to turn journalistic maneuvering and lawyering up into forceful drama.
In the twin leads, Crowe and Pacino are both in top form. Pacino mostly resists the grandstanding that mars some of his work, and finds a weary dignity beneath the newsman’s brash focus and shrewd manipulation. Bergman is probably more the noble underdog in this film than reality might say, but that doesn’t discount Pacino’s impact.
Crowe is especially fine, in a tightly coiled performance and with hair dyed a striking pale color. No one in the movies glowers quite as effectively as Crowe, and that hooded potential for violence is here tied to a character of obvious intelligence and restrained decency. The effort needed to maintain that restraint is an anxious undercurrent to all Wigand’s actions.
There is a particularly effective scene early in the film, where Wigand is called back to Brown and Williamson after his dismissal. In an exchange that falls just a smoke-ring short of a punch in the mouth, he is ‘reminded’ of his non-disclosure agreement, and a further punitive addition to that contract, by Thomas Sandefur, the boss who just fired him (played with a filtered, reptilian menace by Michael Gambon). Wigand views Sandefur’s veiled threats not only as a challenge to his safety, but also as a needless smear on his honor. It’s clear which is more important to him, and Crowe responds with a wounded, visceral pride that makes his resolve and resilience much more believable in the later stages of the film.
Along with Gambon’s excellent turn, there is great character work from Christopher Plummer as “60 Minutes” marquee correspondent Mike Wallace, the underappreciated Philip Baker Hall as the show’s executive producer Don Hewitt, Stephen Tobolowsky as a CBS bigwig, and Bruce McGill as the attorney who takes Wigand’s deposition. Only the comparatively shallow female roles stand in counter-balance—an executive played by Gina Gershon is a shallow corporate shill, and Wigand’s wife never seems to register.
Interestingly, Mann doesn’t focus so much on the actual content of what Wigand had to say about Big Tobacco. What exactly Wigand accuses them of is made explicit, but in a way that implies the accusations are only the key in the ignition for a bigger, more compelling tale of trust and deception, and the abuse of power. It’s enough for us to know that an injustice is being perpetrated, and the essence of the story is in the path Wigand and Bergman take in getting the story out, and what that path tells us about the expensive but redemptive cost of conscience.
“The Insider” is presented in 1080p High Definition Widescreen, in 2.39:1 ratio. There are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles. The digital transfer is meticulous and extremely pleasing to the eye. Depth of focus is crisp and consistent, and the colors, light and shadows utilized by cinematographer Dante Spinotti are given top-flight treatment. Not surprisingly, given Mann’s reputation for unflagging detail, this is a great looking disc.
The audio track is presented in English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. There are also French 5.1 Dolby Digital and Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital options in the audio set-up menu. Though I had to boost the overall volume a little more than usual on my system, the audio track is detailed and very capably done, complementing the Oscar-nominated sound.
- A disappointingly short production featurette. Though the slipcase claims “audio commentary with Russell Crowe and Al Pacino, “ this is a dubious description. There is no feature commentary in the standard way, just regular interviews. You do get to see and hear from the real Jeffrey Wigand and Lowell Bergman, though given the story at hand, their comments are needlessly brief.
- Theatrical trailer
- The slipcover states there is an “Inside a Scene” extra feature included, but if it’s there, I was unable to find it. Maybe Big Tobacco got ahold of it first.
Finally released on Blu-ray, “The Insider” earned seven well-deserved Oscar nominations back in 1999, including best picture, actor, director and screenplay. Director Michael Mann presents the story of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand with a potent and detailed script, a strong visual palette, and great performances by a remarkable cast.