The Insider

Ninety minutes into The Insider, there is a courtroom drama. The lawyer representing Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company quotes, ‘Mr. Motley, we have rights here.’ Ron Motley replies, ‘Oh you have rights, and lefts, ups, downs and middles. So what? ’ This exchange of dialogue is the perfect way to introduce you to The Insider and it pretty much sums up what the film is about.

Released in 1999, the film is based on a true story of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a top scientist working at Brown and Williamson who decides to blow the whistle on his former bosses after the company fired him for objecting to certain lab tests. Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company not only concealed the fact that it was aware of the addictiveness of cigarette but actually was actively involved in improving the addictiveness. The whistle blowing led to a $236 billion settlement on behalf of the Big Tobacco, the largest class action suit in history. The story first appeared as an article ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ in Vanity Fair. Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) is the producer of CBS 60 Minutes who gets in touch with Wigand for help with some documents but discovers that Wigand knows a lot more. He convinces Wigand to break the confidentiality agreement with B&W Tobacco and disclose all the facts on 60 Minutes. Wigand does appear for an interview with Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) but CBS succumbs to corporate pressure to air the show. Meanwhile, Wigand’s personal life is disrupted and he starts getting frequent death threats. Wigand is raged at Bergman who is instead shocked by the actions taken by CBS. Bergman explains, ‘I am trying to protect you, man.’ Wigand replies, ‘Well, I hope you improve your batting average.’ Russell Crowe versus Al Pacino. That is cinema at its best. Then what follows is that the state of Mississippi hires Wigand to testify on its behalf that cigarettes are actually addictive. Meanwhile guilty of not delivering the promise to Wigand of airing the show, Bergman uses his contacts and leaks the news to the media. Wigand fights for his personal life and Bergman fights the corporate to finally let the truth prevail. After watching Heat and The Last of the Mohicans, I must say that Michael Mann did not disappoint me in this one. There is no violence in The Insider like Mann’s earlier films and still the film is a thriller of the highest standard. Russell Crowe is as fabulous as ever. He actually overshadows Pacino as you will realize that first half where Crowe has all the screen presence is more gripping than the second where Pacino dominates the screen presence.  Christopher Plummer plays the 60 Minutes host with brilliant simplicity. Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall and Bruce Mc Gill leave their impact in a short screen span. Also I must admit that this maybe the best film on tobacco ever made and believe me when I say that because I have seen a lot of them.

Being a film enthusiast, I think The Insider is the perfect film which showcases how the business, government and society work and interact. Put in one sentence, the film deals with five broad issues at large: the control of information by the capitalists, right to public opinion, the role of media in the delivery of information, the role of government and ethics. The fact that the film is not a work of fiction but inspired by true incidents leaves you in disbelief that such scandals do happen. Freedom of speech in a capitalist society is a tricky subject. Looking at extreme theories against capitalism, it seems the bourgeoisie class grants freedom of speech only when the information is of no use. The character of Lowell Bergman in the film tries and refutes the theory. As producer of CBS 60 Minutes, he is always in search of stories which are hidden behind a veil and needs to be shown light. His method is investigative journalism and his aim is to revolutionalize the media in the capitalist society or at least set an example. The term ‘insider’ though used for Russell Crowe’s character in the film, suits well to Bergman as well who as an insider in the media is trying to bring about a social change. When CBS boss refuses to air the Wigand interview due to corporate pressure, Bergman questions, ‘Are you a businessman? Or a newsman?’ Simple and precise but it leaves its impact. And remember it was Al Pacino who delivered the dialogue.

The film shows how corporate regulation of public opinion is not wanted for. Jeffrey Wigand’s whistle blowing led the Big Tobacco to admit that they were actually involved in increasing the addictiveness in cigarettes and leading to thousands of people dying every year. The CBS show in the film beautifully contrasts the Wigand interview with how the Seven Dwarfs (Seven representatives of the tobacco conglomerate) testified in front of the US Senate that nicotine was not an addictive substance. Hiding the scientific evidence meant the Big Tobacco kept their interests over the public interest thus feebly reminding us of Marx and Engels, ‘The bourgeoisie class aims at maximizing the surplus value (profits) and interests of the bourgeoisie are not the interests of masses.’ And where does the power of the bourgeoisie comes from? It is ownership of capital. A remark by the lawyer representing Wigand in the film captures the point. He says, ‘The unlimited check book. That’s how Big Tobacco wins every time on everything, they spend you to death. Six hundred million a year in outside legal – Chadbourne-Park, uh, Ken Starr’s firm, Kirkland & Ellis? Listen, GM and Ford, they get nailed after eleven or twelve pickups blow up, right? These clowns have never, I mean EVER…’

The film adds to the capitalist’s addiction to profits, an additional addiction for tobacco and shows how the combined addiction can drive people. We are again reminded of Marx when we think of how to stand up against the bourgeoisie. The whole of proletariat should rise up and throw away the bourgeoisie is not true in the film. It is more about how one man stands up against the system when faced with difficult circumstances. Wigand stands up against the Big Tobacco and this takes away from him his big salary, disrupts his family life and threatens his life. The confidentiality agreement with B&W Tobacco Company paid him $300,000 a year but now he is getting one tenth of a salary as a school teacher. During the CBS interview in the film, Wallace asks him, ‘And do you wish you hadn’t come forward? Do you wish you hadn’t blown the whistle?’ Wigand replies, ‘There are times when I wish I hadn’t done it. There are times when I feel com… compelled to do it. If you asked me, would I do it again, do I think it’s worth it? Yeah I think it’s worth it.’ Here is where Jeffrey Wigand connects and inspires. And here is where you realize what happens when capitalism becomes devilish. You actually can imagine yourself in an Orwellian society where the big brother is always watching you.

The Insider is also about ethics. Lowell Bergman tries to persuade Wigand to break his confidentiality agreement with B$W Tobacco. What is right here is debatable. Breaking the agreement is against the law but still it is in public interest. I personally believe that people’s rights are above all else. Here the people had right to know what they are consuming and the provision of confidentiality agreement by law certainly is inferior to public interests. A dialogue by Mike Wallace in the film captures my point, ‘I mean, he’s got a corporate secrecy agreement – give me a break! I mean, this is a public health issue! Like an unsafe airframe on a passenger jet or some company dumping cyanide into the East River, issues like that! He can talk, we can air it! They’ve got no right to hide behind a “corporate agreement”! Pass the milk.’ You can apply the idea of the greater good here to see the point. Ethics comes into picture once more when CBS tries to avoid airing the Wigand interview due to pressure of takeover by B$W Tobacco. Once again personal interests were put over public interests and ethics were compromised.

The last issue also relates to the role of media in the society and how truthful they are in delivering information. The film shows how the corporate controls the media and how all information we get cannot be trusted completely. On one hand, CBS tried to avoid airing the Wigand interview due to pressure of a takeover. This is a great example of corporate bossing of media. On the other hand tobacco major ties hands with Wall Street Journal to destroy the credibility of Wigand by digging his past and finding irrelevant faults and making it sound big. This is so true of the world today where capital rules what is put on the newspaper and what is aired on the television.

The film also highlights the role of government in regulation and control. When the US government passed the law dealing with confidentiality agreements for corporates, a compromise was made. The compromise was right to information. Now information is a delicate issue. How you handle it matters and you need discretion. Discretion relates to who you give the information to and how much of information you give. Here the tobacco company took advantage of the confidentiality agreement to hide from the public a matter which affects the public at large and adversely. Government must take initiative and laws must be refined and made more flexible to acknowledge the uniqueness of different circumstances.

The film is also about manipulation, for the good and for the bad. Trapped in the capitalist cage of personal restrictions to express and act, Bergman realizes that the best way to fight the system is to use the system. He uses his ability to work through various networks in the media, collaborates with friends, and sophistically utilizes information and his position to initiate a fight of capital against capital. The statement by Bergman, ‘I’m Lowell Bergmann, I’m from 60 Minutes. You know, you take the 60 Minutes out of that sentence, nobody returns your phone call,’ actually tells you the power of position and how you can use it to do the good, the bad and the ugly.

There are a few pitfalls in the film like the director has fully utilized his dramatic liberty and the film stretches for two hours and thirty seven minutes. Also the second half of the movie loses its grip on you after a brilliant first half. Still the complex mixture of information control, role of government and media, and ethics is handled diligently by Mann and for once he proves his brilliance. Tobacco has been covered so many times in Hollywood that it once became boring. Mann manages to revive the interest. Even after the ending being so predictable, you will be forced to stick to your seat. I suggest The Insider to you as a mandatory view. Nothing better concludes the review than the conversation between Wigand and Bergman when the latter is not able to keep his promise to air the former’s interview:

Lowell Bergman: I fought for you and I still fight for you!
Jeffrey Wigand: You fought for me? You manipulated me! Into where I am now – staring at the Brown & Williamson building, it’s all dark except for the tenth floor. That’s the legal department, that’s where they f*** with my life!

Shrikant Avi

[Image courtesy:]