Skip to main content

Is CBS Corporate telling CBS News "Do not air this story"?

The Insider
(1999)

(SPOILERS) The Insider was the 1999 Best Picture Oscar nominee that didn’t. Do any business, that is. Which is, more often than not, a major mark against it getting the big prize. It can happen (2009, and there was a string of them from 2014-2016), but aside from brief, self-congratulatory “we care about art first” vibes, it generally does nothing for the ceremony’s profile, or the confidence of the industry that is its bread and butter. The Insider lacked the easy accessibility of the other nominees – supernatural affairs, wafer-thin melodramas or middle-class suburbanite satires. It didn’t even brandish a truly headlines-shattering nail-biter in its conspiracy-related true story, as earlier contenders All the President’s Men and JFK could boast. But none of those black marks prevented The Insider from being the cream of the year’s crop.

There are those who tout the film as Michael Mann’s best movie, and it undoubtedly has many admirable qualities, but I don’t think it can quite scale to the heights of Heat or Manhunter, or even The Last of the Mohicans and Collateral, come to that. The chief problem is that aforementioned subject matter. The idea that Big Tobacco should collude in collective denial that they’re spiking their product to make nicotine even more addictive while denying that cigarettes do any such thing is probably the biggest “Like, duh” shrug going, and no degree of ratcheting up the tension and paranoia and threats against Russell Crowe’s whistle-blower protagonist can truly mitigate that. Mann has thus rather shot himself in the backfoot he’s started out on, so it’s quite an achievement that he manages to make as engrossing a movie as he does.

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that The Insider, as absorbing as it is during the first ninety minutes, only really kicks into wholly compelling gear during the last half hour. Post the fact of former Brown & Williamson exec Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe) agreeing to be interviewed on 60 Minutes (thanks to Al Pacino’s producer Lowell Bergman), he gives testimony in Mississippi, in so doing ignoring a Kentucky gagging order. It’s an electric scene, as Wings Hauser’s attorney repeatedly instructs Wigand to be mindful of his Brown & Williamson agreement, to the incensed reaction of Bruce McGill’s prosecutor gathering evidence against Big Tobacco (“Wipe that smirk off your face!”) The most consistent edge-of-the-seat stretch is still to come, though.

Bergman: Are we going to air it? Of course not. Why? Because he’s not telling the truth? No. Because he is telling the truth. That’s why we’re not going to air it. And the more truth he tells, the worse it gets!

It’s ironic that, with all the previous time spent on Wigand’s domestic, financial and of-conscience trials, the picture hits its stride dealing with the internal wrangling at CBS, as Bergman must face the company’s corporate controllers capitulating to the pressures of the tobacco companies, fearful of being sued (Brown & Williamson could own CBS at the end of it, he is told), but really because they don’t want anything to adversely impact the company’s potential sale.

I don’t necessarily think Pacino was the best pick for Bergman; this came at a point in his career when he was no longer disappearing into parts, which was perfect for something like Heat, but here, there’s a tonal mismatch between Al essentially being Al and Crowe sinking into a part or Christopher Plummer’s subtle restraint (fantastic as Mike Wallace, ethically compromised by his desire to shore up a legacy). Don’t get me wrong, Pacino and Plummer are fascinating together, and Pacino at his most combustible, angrily facing down boss Philip Baker Hall (as Don Hewitt), is enthralling stuff. But his presence doesn’t quite offer the seamless immersion the story demands.

Crowe, though, is quite extraordinary as Wigand, without any recourse to vanity playing his nowcurrent age and not just looking it, but inhabiting a puffy, problematic, withdrawn, difficult, easily enraged man; indeed, the rougher the edges, the better. Mann starts out by making Wigand’s wife Diane Venora appear unreasonable for thinking about money while he’s wrestling with a moral quandary, but by the time we’re through, her decision to leave him seems not only entirely reasonable but the only sensible course of action (Mann appears to be repeating his Heat approach, to an extent, by contrasting his male protagonists’ personal lives, but unfortunately, Lindsay Crouse is entirely wasted in a nothing part as Bergman’s wife).

The takeaway with Crowe’s eventual Oscar glory is the old one of right actor, wrong performance. This has happened numerous times, of course, sometimes, as here, through neglecting an immediately adjacent role that should have won; Joan Fontaine was given the award for Suspicion, when it was abundantly clear it was in recognition for being passed over for the previous year’s Rebecca. So Crowe won the following year for Gladiator, where he’s commanding to be sure, but his achievement is mostly notable through giving substance to cardboard character. I think it’s fair to say that, with the possible exception of Romper Stomper, the actor hasn’t come close to Wigand, for which he was nominated but passed over in favour of a much flashier performance, elsewhere in his career.

There are some nice supporting turns besides those I’ve mentioned, including Gina Gershon as a smooth corporate lawyer, Michael Gambon as a silky Brown & Williamson CEO and Colm Feore, now forever consigned to villains, it seems, leading the good fight against Big Tobacco.

One does end up feeling that Mann’s eye isn’t always on the ball with his choices, since his natural inclination is towards neo-noirish extravagance, which sometimes actively fights against the gritty tale The Insider wants to be; there’s a great scene that nevertheless feels entirely inappropriate, where Bergman’s on his chunky cell phone, walking into the ocean in an attempt to get better reception while instructing a hotel manager to break into Wigand’s room because he suspects he may be suicidal. It’s all kinds of excessive, and in a different film would have been a classic. Still, he’s always ready with striking compositions, such as Wigand making a call in a room of plastic-wrapped furniture, or sat silently in an intensely muralled hotel suite. Contrastingly, while Mann’s admirably focussed throughout on Wigand’s whistleblowing, there’s an entirely superfluous and distracting thread concerning Bergman’s Unabomber story that really should have been shorn; presumably, the director felt that, in the name of diligence to the bigger picture, it had to stay.

As usual under Mann, the marriage of music to image is striking and memorable, courtesy of, respectively, Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke, and Dante Spinotti. David Milch, meanwhile, must have been a fan of the use of Iguazu by Gustavo Sanataolalla, as it also shows up in Season One of Deadwood.

Wigand: You believe that because you get information out to people, something happens? … Maybe that’s just what you’re telling yourself all these years to justify having a good job. Having status. Or maybe for the audience, it’s just voyeurism, something to do on a Sunday night. And maybe it won’t change a thing. And people like myself and my family are hung out to dry. Used up, broke, alone.

There’s an additional irony to the manner in which the reporter side ultimately provides the dramatic main course; it’s almost a reflection of the conversation in which Wigand imagines he will be screwed over (and is). And also because this side is only more resonant in light of state vilification (and the fugitive or incarcerated status) of whistle-blowers in recent years, adding to the idea that not only does it not pay, but that the public doesn’t really care. The Insider was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and like several other Best Picture nominees that night (The Green Mile, The Sixth Sense), it went home empty handed. It’s a shame that it remains the best of those up for consideration that year and yet its profile has not risen at all in the last two decades.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.