Mann Inside

The Insider
area theaters, starts Friday

The trailer for Michael Mann's latest film highlights scenes of men screaming into telephones and speechifying in pompous boardroom face-offs: It pitches The Insider, which reconstructs the story of a censored 60 Minutes segment on a tobacco industry whistleblower, as some kind of strenuously high-strung and self-satisfied movie-of-the-week version of Silkwood. Bad tobacco! Good whistleblower! Inspirational free press heroics, and Al Pacino doing that tired white-rimmed-and-bulging eyeball shtick. Why subject yourself? I'll give you three reasons: Michael Mann. Russell Crowe. And the trailer is hooey.

Sure, all the promo's standard melodrama shows up in The Insider, but it becomes bearable, even memorable, in the context of what grows up around it: moments of reflective blue-green beauty, startling stretches of silence and sudden interruptions of sound, resonantly dialogue-free interactions. Like Mann's Heat, this is a fast-moving, long-running film (about two and a half hours), but the director has packed it with contemplation rather than action. The characters--and especially Crowe's former tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand--have time to consider, to doubt, to get furious, to crumble, and, most of all, to anticipate. Mann's patience with what goes on "inside" teases heartaching suspense out of a media story that didn't need Nathan Lane to spill its ending.

The film actually begins inside a mask: Lowell Bergman (Pacino), a feisty producer for CBS's investigative news show 60 Minutes, is being taken to meet an Islamic "terrorist" sheik (yeah, another one) in hopes of setting up a Mike Wallace interview; the viewer first sees from inside his blindfold. The Lebanon vignette nicely introduces Bergman and Wallace (embodied with perfect arrogance and studied gravity by Christopher Plummer), and more clumsily establishes 60 Minutes' reputation for journalistic integrity with a Bergman rant. (The Insider is so smartly written by Mann and Eric Roth that the occasional obvious stuff hits the floor with a clang.)

Back in New York and stuck with a perplexing pile of tobacco-industry scientific documents, Bergman goes looking for a translator. He tracks down Wigand, freshly fired head of research and development at one of tobacco's big three, Brown & Williamson. Wigand has signed a confidentiality agreement ensuring severance pay and continuing health coverage for his wife and daughters; he doesn't want to talk. The men's initial exchange takes place solely through answering machines and faxes--and it's still stingingly tense. (Note to Nora Ephron: Most moviegoers can read.)

Lauded for his good-looking thugs in L.A. Confidentialand Romper Stomper, Crowe does an amazing job with Wigand, and it's not just that his usually compelling face looks pale and puffy as a marshmallow. The scientist lost his job for protesting a known chemical carcinogen added to cigarettes, but the ostensible reason--"communication problems"--is right on: Crowe has Wigand always leaning away from people, his head ducked, as if he's continually backing away from their emotions and his own. He can't even talk to his wife. A pressure cooker with a heavy lid on, Wigand convinces himself to reveal tobacco's secrets because he's finally fed up with people telling him what he should and shouldn't say.

So the storm that hits Wigand turns out to be as much internal as external. Even as he's ordered to shut up via gag orders, divorce papers, and e-mailed death threats, he's got Bergman yelling in his ear, relentlessly calling for him to speak. (At least half of this movie happens on the phone: Where Heat relied on steel and glass architecture to represent the characters' domestic disconnection, The Insider leans on communications technology as a metaphor for both psychic intimacy and invasion.) This conflict does not reduce simply to corrupt big money versus individual integrity--although the film makes a point of paralleling Wigand's corporate migraine with Bergman's, as CBS caves in to Brown & Williamson's legal strong-arming and yanks Wigand's interview. Instead, Mann presses on further to juxtapose cultural noise and expectation with silence, asking how and where a true sense of self arises.

As Mann casts it, this is a male concern. There are no female characters in The Insider, only role-players. I don't find their absence offensive, as I didn't in Fight Club, because of the seriousness of the attempt to unpeel the masks known as masculinity. This year has seen a slew of movies berate corporate capitalism; rather than take them at their conglomerate-born word, one may view the criticism as a way to separate man from Corporate Man, to discover what "male" identities might emerge when Mr. Bread-(and-Lexus-)winner has been chased from the scene. In The Insider, the searcher doesn't free his secrets by fighting and fucking: His painful task is to listen better, and to share what he learns. Already having listened, Mann understands that necessary change hurts most where it heals most: inside.

 
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