The Insider - rated - SIMMERING

A Whistleblower that doesn't tell the Whole Story

This is an entertaining film, despite the fact that it tells a story that is complicated, technical, talky and potentially static. Somehow director Michael Mann (Manhunter, 1986, The Last of the Mohicans 1992, Heat 1995) manages to make it fascinating and compelling. Still, that's not an impossible task: Steven Zaillian did it recently with A Civil Action (1998).

The Insider is also a thoughtful film. If I had to sum up what it is about in one word, I'd say "compromise." All the major players have to compromise in some way: most obviously, the whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (played by a totally transformed Russell Crowe) compromised by using his considerable scientific talents for an "evil" industry like the tobacco industry. The TV executives compromise when they find out that airing the "whistleblowing" program on TV's Sixty Minutes could cost their corporation big money. The TV producer (Al Pacino, in another brilliant performance - thankfully on the subdued side) spends much of the film's considerable length agonising about compromise, but he must have compromised often throughout his career. So the film made me think about how often we have to compromise in our lives, and what the effects are when we compromise our principles. In fact, my favourite part of the movie is when Mike Wallace finds out that the most important thing about how people remember you has nothing to do with commercial decisions - it has to do your integrity in holding to your principles.

However, the film itself is compromised. First of all, it simplifies the story to make it more dramatic. There's nothing wrong with that in itself - the film is an entertainment after all. But it pretends to be a true story, and it isn't. There's something a little unsettling about a film about investigative journalism which manipulates the facts for entertainment value. Even more fundamentally, the film sets itself an easy target - the tobacco industry, and then doesn't even fight fairly. It manipulates the facts to make them more appealing to the consumer- which is exactly what the tobacco industry did!

So the film concentrates too much on the tobacco industry as villains and, as my friend, film writer Keith Howes has pointed out, it even makes them out to be stalkers - à la Cape Fear! It does not tell us anything about the cosy relationship of tobacco and the TV industry (remember the time when TV presenters even smoked on camera?).

There was also something that rang untrue about Wigand's relationship with his wife and kids - I suspect there's much more to that story than we saw in the film. And did Wigand really sell out to the tobacco industry because it gave good health care benefits? Hmmm...

While I'm talking about the film's faults, there needs to be a special mention of the casting of Michael Gambon as Thomas Sandefur, a Southern tobacco company CEO. Michael, Michael, what were you thiinking?! For heaven's sake, sack your agent! And what was Rip Torn doing in a tiny part as John Scanlon (who must be someone famous, otherwise there's no reason for the top-heavy casting)? These casting errors were most distracting.

Russell Crowe, on the other hand, put a Herculean effort into his part - putting on something like 10 kilos in weight, shaving his head and wearing a horrible wig, and apparently impersonating the real Wigand so effectively that it fooled family members. Of course the veracity of his performance is something that we the audience can't judge for ourselves. Is that acting or impersonation? Perhaps it's characterisation. Maybe that's splitting hairs. The real point is that Crowe portrays this rather morose man in a most compelling fashion. Even in a long scene where Crowe's back is to the camera nearly the whole time, he compels our attention. That's a really fine job of acting, in my opinion. And it is also very impressive that Crowe can act opposite Pacino and not be overwhelmed. The two of them seem perfectl;y balanced. They work well together, and together they fill the sceen.

Michael Mann pulls every trick in the book to stop the story from grinding to a halt under the weight of all the legal, scientific, financial and ethical detail. To this end, he employes the dreaded (and these days ubiquitous) hand-held camera. Mann's camera waddles around every setting and looms over the shoulders of the players at every given chance. This restless camera is largely irritating and unnecessary - after all, every time either Crowe or Pacino are centrestage we are transfixed.

So the shortcomings of this film are considerable, but the talent invoved is also considerable, and it all adds up to a gripping film on a fascinating subject.