Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Insider

The Insider tells the story of a whistle-blower. Russell Crowe plays Jeffrey Wigand, the former Research and Development Head at Brown and Williamson, a former subsidiary of British Tobacco. He is in everything the helpless protagonist: from beginning to end we are treated to his deteriorating condition, his drunkenness, and his paranoia. Belying all this, of course, is his role in exposing what his company (which fires him) has been hiding all these years: that nicotine is not just harmful and addictive, but that tobacco companies have artificially manipulated its strength in cigarettes.

The media plays a large part in all this: CBS' "60 Minutes", possibly the most watched talk-show program in American television history, becomes interested in him after its producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) consults him over some documents relating to Phillip Morris. He is initially reluctant to come out: his agreement with B&W forbids him to 'talk', and, if he does so, CEO Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon) threatens that they will cut him off from the health benefits he desperately needs for his daughter, who is suffering from a severe medical condition.

The film, from beginning to end, presents us with a mismatch: between law and morality. Wigand breaches his agreement with B&W and talks to Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), the host of "60 Minutes". This leads to several standoffs, including an envelope with a bullet inside he receives from (we are never told) company agents. His relationship with his wife (Renee Olstead) deteriorates, and, in a moving sequence, she tearfully says that she cannot keep up with him anymore.

This mismatch is active even at CBS: Bergman is advised by legal advisors not to broadcast the uncensored interview. It is never actually told to us, but it is implied that this is because of a possibly lawsuit B&W may file against the company. We are introduced to a legal concept: 'tortuous interference', with which CBS can be sued for helping Wigand to breach his confidentiality agreement. Bergman's conflict with "60 Minutes" producer Mike Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) dominates the second half of the film.

Meanwhile Wigand, who at this point has gone to Mississippi to testify against B&W, to help gain reimbursement for healthcare costs incurred on nicotine victims. This lawsuit will later amount to more than $240 billion. But for now, the law is against him here as well: his state, Kentucky, immediately files a restraining order against him, preventing him from testifying. He defies it, immediately placing him under the threat of imprisonment. He never does get imprisoned, of course: but that never wavers the fear we feel for him.

In short, The Insider never frills up its story. In reality Wigand won the day: he does so here as well. But the ending of the film is fabricated, and Bergman's departure from the news station has a tinge of pessimism. Pacino, who has played so many hardboiled, embittered roles before, including the one-man-against-all honest police officer in Serpico, flourishes his exit with cynicism. If the finale is fabricated, it is because the film's director, Michael Mann (Collateral, Ali), is refusing to offer us the traditional happy ending. And Wigand is never shown to us as the perfect hero: rather, at times he is presented to us as the reluctant hero, whose actions aren't entirely commendable.

The best of "based on a true story" films, however, follow this trend. Its hero is no cardboard cut-out, and if you watch Wigand's story in this film expecting something to that tune, you will be disappointed. But if you are a discerning film lover who expects no frills, you will genuinely like The Insider.