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NewCityNet Heat, Smoke And Fire

By Ray Pride

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  Who is "The Insider"?

Michael Mann's bravura accomplishment is to take seemingly abstruse issues and forge them into a sensual and stirring, heart-pounding thriller, relentlessly innovative style, yet never less than fundamentally human.

"The Insider" depicts the struggle of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) a troubled, complicated corporate whistleblower to expose the killing duplicity of Brown & Williamson Tobacco, where he works. He trusts no one, until Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a segment producer for "60 Minutes," convinces him that he will not get burned if he talks. But with CBS' multibillion-dollar merger with Westinghouse in the works, an interview that states the long-known but never acknowledged truth -- cigarettes cause cancer -- will be spiked by corporate foot-dragging.

But that is dull fact. "The Insider" is storytelling of a rare and splendid order. While lengthy, it takes its own gracious pace, a dazzling blend of narrative shorthand and eye-stroking visuals. Tell me the truest thing in our public lives: What does it mean to be honorable in a society that has abandoned its considerations of morality to the quarterly-return, stock-analyst-pumped, do-it-for-a-dime corporate culture?

Wigand is a scientist. He thought a safer cigarette could be manufactured. One of the rushes of jargon in Mann and Eric Roth's script concerns "ignition propensity" of different smokes. But "The Insider" smolders, too: Mann cannot veil his visual propensities. So many telling images are marshaled in the service of a simple tale. There is a scene were Bergman is trying to convince Wigand that his confidentiality agreement with B&W can be broken while sitting in Wigand's car on the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky. Outside, rain pours. There is an impasse between the men. We see crisp water drops rolling off the car window, then focus shifts to a barge tugging slowly, steadily, honorably, along the route of its daily task. It is beauty in itself as well as aching metaphor for Wigand's obstinate forward motion.

Mann uses variable camera speeds, telephoto compositions, shimmering light, off-kilter edits, and negative space (the use of emptiness in the widescreen frame for emotional impact). At their most elevated moments, his compositions hypnotize space itself. After Wigand is first approached by Bergman, the camera watches him walk down a hotel corridor. The camera moves, centering the image. The slight angle rights itself, yet the resultant symmetry is not pleasing, but unsettling. There are even ripples of unease when Mann uses flickering within flickering images -- the motion between a car and the camera is often sandwiched with blurs of interceding motion. All is pregnant with meaning and sensation. Gestures are not explained, but are arrayed in a manner that permits us to follow swings of mood without gobs of explication.

The script is shorthanded poetry: take the reaction of Wigand to the loss of his job, offering concern for his wife and two daughters: "What about our health? What about our medical coverage?" The first line is a vernacular equivalent for the second, but is rife with irony as he's losing a job that's damaged the health of millions. The performances are fine, too: there are scenes of confrontation and revelation, spitty, splurgy actor's moments. Christopher Plummer is at his Plummiest as Mike Wallace: a figure with moments of doubt, but always a showman driven to find the truest truth and truest show.

Mann shows scrupulous concern for every aspect of what we see and hear. Take the opening shots, the sophistication of image and music. The first shot is a point-of-view from inside a blindfold: white light bleaches in, gridding the image as if we were actually inside a cigarette filter. Listen to Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke's music, which at first sounds like a tempest of Dead Can Dance-style world music sturm und drang. Drums pound like a skittering, accelerated heartbeat. Gerrard's voice whispers, murmurs indecipherable words. A spiraling instrument line rises to the sound of a bell. Mann gives us images now: a man behind a blindfold in a car's back seat, driven along a Middle Eastern highway, lined with soldiers, many puffing cigarettes. The bell sounds again: a cash register's bell.

There is a shot of a man walking out a door early on, and the last shot is of another man walking out a door. Each time, the image slows only perceptibly. Mann's accomplishment is that the viewer becomes the "insider" -- through almost abstract synthesis of composition, focal length, reflection, decor, shadow and blur, he suggests the emotional temperature of what Jeffrey Wigand and Lowell Bergman accomplish as they attempt merely to be men, merely to do not something uncommonly valorous or heroic, but to do what once would simply have been considered the right, the only thing to do. This is cinema.

We're living in a rich time for movies when commodity art is once more allowed to challenge the status quo. In the past month alone, let us not forget the wildly divergent "The Straight Story," "Being John Malkovich" and "Fight Club." But as for "The Insider," I would weep for joy if there were a better American movie this year.

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