by Matt J. Popham
[Originally published in conjunction with St. David’s Jubilee Center summer film series.]
Far and away, Michael Mann’s most accomplished and artful film, The Insider has only gained in cultural relevance and resonance in the years since its release. It’s a film that, in the age of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, ought to be shown in both film and journalism schools across the country. Russell Crowe, in a riveting slow-burn performance, portrays real-life Brown & Williamson whistleblower, Jeffrey Wigand, a chemist on a crusade to expose the fraudulent claims of Big Tobacco. The film chronicles Wigand’s relationship with 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino, in what may be the subtlest, least affected performance of his later career) and their battles, legal and personal, to make Wigand’s revelations public. The film remains anchored in its docudrama reality thanks to Mann’s meticulous attention to accuracy and detail, but he’s no neo-realist, and to its credit, The Insider makes no attempt to be All the President’s Men. Instead, Mann’s grand, operatic style is put to better use here than in his various overwrought action spectacles, his fondness for saturated blue filters, swelling music, slow motion sequences, and visual motifs suggesting ships in peril on stormy seas all serving to elevate Wigand’s and Bergman’s real-world legal battles with corporate conglomerates to the level of epic drama. A compelling portrait of “ordinary people under extraordinary pressure,” The Insider is an important cinematic achievement that has lost none of its power or poignancy. It remains as intense and hard-hitting as a headrush.