[Screen It]

(1999) (Al Pacino, Russell Crowe) (R)

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Drama: A "60 Minutes" producer tries to air an exposť on the tobacco industry while helping a reluctant, former tobacco company executive in his quest to tell the truth about his former employer's business practices.
Jeffrey Wigand (RUSSELL CROWE) has just been fired from his job at Brown & Williamson, the nation's third largest cigarette manufacturer, by its chairman, Thomas Sandefur (MICHAEL GAMBON), for blowing the whistle on some of their questionable business and research practices.

Lowell Bergman (AL PACINO) is an ambitious producer for the CBS news program, "60 Minutes." Having worked with journalist Mike Wallace (CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER) for fourteen years, Bergman is the best at what he does. When he receives a package concerning product safety studies at another tobacco company, Bergman contacts Wigand, hoping to hire him as a temporary consultant for a possible "60 Minutes" segment.

Wigand is reluctant, however, since such activity would violate a confidentiality agreement he signed with B&W. Doing so would thus jeopardize his severance package that currently provides for him, his wife Liane (DIANE VENORA), and their two young girls, Barbara (HALLIE KATE EISENBERG) and Deborah (RENEE OLSTEAD), the latter of whom needs medical insurance to cover her severe asthma.

When Sandefur threatens to cut off Wigand's severance package if he doesn't sign a completely restrictive supplement to the confidentiality agreement, the former Vice President of research loses his cool, storms out and contacts Bergman, telling him he'll do his story. However, the seasoned producer, sensing far more of a story with Wigand, decides to pursue whatever he knows that's making the B&W executives so nervous.

Taping an interview with Wallace, Wigand details information that might seriously damage not only B&W, but the other tobacco giants as well. Sensing this and in retaliation, they start putting pressure on him by attempting to dig up any past secrets, smear his name and reputation, or simply intimidate him into stopping.

As the stakes increase and Wigand testifies in court against the tobacco industry for Mississippi activists Richard Scruggs (COLM FEORE) and Ron Motley (BRUCE McGILL), he finds his life quickly unraveling with his wife starting to succumb to the unrelenting stress.

At the same time, Bergman suddenly finds his story in danger of not being aired. Meeting with "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt (PHILIP BAKER HALL), and CBS corporate executives Eric Kluster (STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY) and Helen Caperelli (GINA GERSHON), Bergman discovers that the network could be sued for helping break Wigand's confidentiality agreement. With pressure mounting from all sides, Bergman does what he can to make sure his story airs while Wigand must decide how far he's willing to go to tell the truth.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Everybody loves the underdog, and that's especially true when the odds are incredibly stacked against them. Whether it's the relatively unknown politician challenging the powerful, long-term incumbent, the small college football team taking on the dominant national powerhouse, or the trendsetter, if you will, of such stories, David vs. Goliath, most people have a subconscious desire for the little guy to win.

That's especially true when the little guy is telling the truth, and the big, evil government entity or powerful corporation is trying to squash him and his message. Such is the case with Touchstone Pictures' release of "The Insider," the true story of a single man, the corporate giant that hoped to silence him, and an ambitious TV news magazine producer who wanted to make sure everyone knew what was occurring but ran into his own little man, big corporation battle.

Based on Marie Brenner's May 1996 Vanity Fair article, "The Man Who Knew Too Much," this is the sort of film that takes advantage of our inherent rooting for the underdog. As written and directed by Michael Mann ("Heat," "The Last of the Mohicans"), who collaborated with co-screenwriter Eric Roth ("The Horse Whisperer," "Forrest Gump"), the picture works on the most basic level simply because of the standard, good vs. evil setup.

Yet it offers so much more than that. With behemoth corporations gobbling up smaller companies and even other large corporations, one begins to wonder how much weight the shareholders then have on the inner workings and business decisions of the assimilated entities. Do they really care about what those companies have to offer, or only how they affect the bottom line? As corporate giants swallow more news organizations, one has to wonder about journalistic integrity and whether it remains autonomous or is controlled from higher up.

That's half the "fun" of "The Insider." Besides offering an entertaining view of the often hard-nosed news program that's known for reportedly telling it like it is, but is often hated by those presented on it, the film offers the "what if" scenario of what would happen should the corporate overseer of such a news division decide to squash or at minimum alter a story to protect its stock value. While CBS has reportedly disavowed such activities, such a plot -- artistic license or not -- obviously provides for some great dramatic conflict and Mann and company have made sure to effectively milk every last bit of it.

The same holds true for the other half of the story that details the trials and tribulations of a corporate whistle blower. As stated in the film, the tobacco industry -- at least up until the 1998 multibillion dollar national lawsuit settlement -- never admitted to wrongdoing and had never lost any litigation aimed at it. Thus, the story of one man attempting to fight such a massive and seemingly relentless and unbeatable entity similarly makes for some great drama.

Mann, who knows a thing or two about creating highly charged, dramatic pictures -- his 1995 "Heat" was one of that year's best -- takes these two stories and weaves them into an absorbing and riveting drama. Despite a running time of more than two and a half hours, the film flies by with few, if any, boring moments or interludes.

Much of that is due to the absolutely tremendous performances from the film's two leads. Nobody does the angered man ready to erupt like a volcano bit better than eight-time Oscar nominee, Al Pacino ("Dog Day Afternoon" and a winner for "Scent of a Woman"). As the determined "60 Minutes" segment producer, Pacino is nothing short of believable and delivers a highly entertaining and engrossing performance.

His counterpart, Russell Crowe ("Mystery, Alaska," "L.A. Confidential"), delivers just as good a performance and should earn him a shot at his first Oscar nomination. Playing a man faced with increasingly difficult decisions to make, Crowe creates a character who's certainly not perfect, but one who still manages to have the viewer rooting for his success.

Playing famed "60 Minutes" journalist Mike Wallace with a certain wicked glee, Christopher Plummer ("The Sound of Music," "Dolores Claiborne") may just also earn himself some award considerations for his highly entertaining performance. Supporting takes from the likes of Diane Venora ("The Jackal") as Wigand's unhappy wife, Philip Baker Hall ("Hard Eight") as the "60 Minutes" executive producer and Bruce McGill ("Timecop") as a heated Mississippi activist are also quite strong and only add to the film's overall credibility.

While some may criticize the film for making much ado about nothing, or at least posturing itself as the important storyteller of the ultimate threat to journalistic integrity and the overall truth, the filmmakers have fashioned it in such a highly compelling and entertaining package that most moviegoers will be too swept away in the proceeding to really notice or care.

Featuring strong direction by Mann, tremendous, Oscar caliber performances from its leads and a strong script with some great, standout writing into which the performers can really sink their thespian teeth, this is easily one of the year's better films. If you enjoy intelligent and engaging dramatic work and/or watching the underdogs take on the world's Goliaths, you certainly won't go wrong with this picture. We highly recommend it and thus give "The Insider" an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed October 28, 1999 / Posted November 5, 1999

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