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Tucson Weekly Smoke Screen

Pacino Lights A Fire Under The Tobacco Industry In 'The Insider.'

By James DiGiovanna

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  THE INSIDER IS a very important film. First of all, it's a true story, so it's just automatically more important than some not-true film. Also, the camera wiggles in fake-documentary style as it takes in ominous closeups of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Circumstances. There's not much music, and when there is music, it's some kind of important-sounding operatic singing. And there are long, slow scenes where almost nothing happens, as if to say, "Hey, those parts of the movie where stuff happens are so important that you, the audience, no doubt need a little break to take it all in." I think the one thing that was missing from The Insider was a flashing red light that would appear during the really important parts, so we would know that they were so really, very important.

The Insider begins by telling the (important) true story of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a researcher for Brown & Williamson tobacco corporation, who is fired from his job. We follow him as he looks like he's on the verge of doing something important, but is stopped by the fact that he has to abide by a confidentiality agreement he signed at his old job. So even though he's no longer working for the evil Brown & Williamson, he can't do his important thing. Instead, he has to look very serious during a lot of quiet, dark scenes that focus on his extremely important hands.

It's important that Dr. Wigand do something about Brown & Williamson because they are pure evil. There's no doubt about this, because their CEO has flabby jowls and is frequently shot from below as he sits behind his evil-looking desk in an office, which, in a hallmark of evil, has dark wood paneling. Who will help Dr. Wigand?

The answer, of course, is Pure Good, in the form of Al Pacino, whom we first see in his well lit, spacious bedroom, lying next to his noble wife as the morning sun creeps across his upright newspaper. His acne-free adolescent children stop in to establish that he has a good relationship with them before he begins looking over a box of mysterious documents. It seems that someone has anonymously sent him some internal memos from the evil Brown & Williamson, memos which imply that B&W knew all along that cigarettes were flammable.

Al Pacino, playing Lowell Bergman, a producer for 60 Minutes, gets a tip that he should call Dr. Wigand for help in deciphering the documents. When he does, Dr. Wigand is quite standoffish, not because he's evil (in fact, he has two daughters, one of whom is sick, so obviously he's almost entirely good), but because the evil Brown & Williamson will surely do him some terrible wrong if he crosses them.

Lowell Bergman, producer for 60 Minutes (this is how he almost invariably introduces himself, as though "Bergman" were just his middle name), smells a bigger story, and pursues Wigand until he learns the truth. It seems that not only did Brown & Williamson know that cigarettes were flammable, they also knew that they were bad for you to smoke.

Wow. Important. At this point, the movie pauses for about an hour so that we have time to really let this stuff sink in. During this hour there's dialogue like this: Al Pacino is on the phone to his wife and says, "I'm gonna be late. The 6 o'clock is canceled. No, they're all canceled. I'll have to take the 8:20. Yeah." Dialogue like that really gives you the time you need to concentrate on the importance of things like cigarettes and plane travel. Like, you can't smoke on a plane anymore. You could think about that while Al Pacino fills the air with some of the most redundant and inessential dialogue ever spoken.

Still, if it weren't for that kind of dialogue, this movie wouldn't be able to fill up its voluminous 2-hour-and-37-minute running time, so you can see why it's necessary.

About an hour and 45 minutes into the film, though, something happens: Pacino is told that CBS management doesn't want to run the story. Suddenly, things get interesting. Pacino discovers evidence that CBS is trying to protect itself for a future sale. The hypocrisy that pervades a news organization that is part of a big business interest is neatly exposed. Brown & Williamson's tactics in defending themselves make the evil caricature of them seem justified. And throughout, Russell Crowe as Dr. Jeffrey Wigand gives one of those performances that continually deepens, adding nuances that reflect the increasing difficulties of Wigand's life.

In the end, The Insider winds up presenting an intensely engaging, and probably truly important examination of the way the American news media functions. Sadly, it presents this examination only after it spends its middle third boring everyone silly with its ridiculous sense of its own morality and importance. It's a shame, really, because on top of Crowe's stellar performance, there's a really cunning bit of acting by veteran character actor Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace (it's like you're really watching Mike Wallace as he is when no one's watching him) and one of those performances that Al Pacino gives intermittently wherein he "acts" instead of "hams it up so bad you want to de-bone him and serve him with pineapple."

If director Michael Mann (who helmed the Miami Vice TV series in the '80s) could have just reigned himself in a little, like by cutting about an hour of pointless stuff out of this film, he'd have a real winner on his hands. As it stands, what is in parts really fabulous is hamstrung by presenting itself as a nearly three-hour-long love letter to, well, itself.


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