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IN SHORT: Almost compelling. But you know what they say about almost... [Rated [R], 155 minutes]
Slow and deliberate pacing is all well and good for the first hour of an end of the year flick, but when the fireworks at the core of the story finally hit, it would be very nice if they sustained themselves for a bit. It would be even nicer if they weren't backed up by a soundtrack vocal that sounds like the wail of a peasant woman being tortured. But they don't and they are and good is not good enough in Oscar season.
Michael Mann's The Insider dramatizes the story of a botched 60 Minutes report on the addictive properties of cigarettes. Botch may be the wrong word; It wasn't factually inaccurate story -- at the center of the storm is a fired research V.P. for the Brown & Williamson tobacco company named Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe). His knowledge of the effects of chemical additives mixed with cigarette tobacco would eventually supply the evidence that forced the "Seven Dwarves" (the big tobacco companies) into a $246 Billion dollar settlement. When 60 minutes was ready to air their story, the threat of a multi-Billion dollar lawsuit by B&Y coupled with, and this is how The Insider presents it, the pending sale of CBS to Westinghouse and all the stock option profits that would be lost because of such a suit caused management to stomp on News. 60 Minutes aired an "alternate" story. One which didn't include the on-camera testimony of Wigand.
Even before the corporate power play, Wigand found himself followed, threatened, unable to find work in his professional capacity as a researcher (he became a schoolteacher). His marriage dissolved, and a high powered public relations firm engineered a nation smear of his reputation. The man he trusted his story to, who assured him (as he had so many others) of the integrity of CBS News was Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) was the correspondent the story was produced for. Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) is the CBS News executive who guides, actually he created, 60 Minutes. All but Bergman, to some extent, folded to pressure from Management (Gina Gershon as the corporate lawyer who stands to lose millions if the story isn't spiked) and aired an "alternate" version of the story, masking Wigand's face and voice in a manner that is downright cheesy.
It isn't hard to disassociate the actors from the real life characters they play, all but Wallace (and Wigand, if you've followed the story very closely) are fairly anonymous to the general public. Christopher Plummer has Wallace's vocal inflection and physical manner down pat -- and all I know about Mike Wallace is what I've seen on teevee for the last thirty or so years -- and the real life Wallace doesn't come off as badly as he thought he would. By which I mean . . .
In the real life news biz sometimes telling most of the story can deliver most of the message. I speak from a couple of years experience at NBC News (the biggest names I worked with were Jane Pauley and Roger Mudd). In this case going with the alternate story is acceptable to Wallace who is facing his last years and worrying about the rep that will live on. When he reads a New York Times editorial saying 60 Minutes had "betrayed the legacy of Edward R. Murrow," Plummer's Wallace is justifiably cut to the quick and reacts. You get a good sense of the politics of the newsroom in what follows.
Al Pacino knows how to bring fire and passion to a role. Pacino's character has a couple of other stories in development and you get a good notion of what working the newsbeat is like. But when his Bergman sees his story about to get spiked, he find the alternative "acceptable." His efforts to get the real story out should've brought them ol' fireworks to the screen. The fuse is lit many times but the sparks rarely fly.
Michael Mann's pacing kills the effort dead. There's nothing that gets in the way of the central story but, when a lot of that story involves great soul searching on everybody's part, that means we spend a lot of time watching people think. That also means that the time devoted to Wigand and his family, Diane Venora as his wife Liane, doesn't provide enough info to stab our emotional hearts when she grabs the kids and runs away from the coming media onslaught. I can't point a finger at Crowe, he's done too much good work before. I have had problems with Michael Mann's writing/directing; yes, I know I'm not supposed to compare films but I'm comparing styles here, and I haven't much liked Mann's.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Insider, he would have paid...
Wait for pay per view. At this time of year, the longer they get, the better they should be. With nominations on the line, the contenders get a more severe looking over. Our nod would go to Plummer's Wallace, though Pacino is a no-brainer.
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