Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: The Insider (1999)
Studio Line: Touchstone Pictures - Warning: Exposing the Truth May Be Hazardous

The Insider recounts the chain of events that pitted an ordinary man against the tobacco industry, and dragged two people into the fight of their lives.

Academy Award Winner Al Pacino gives a powerful performance as veteran 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, and Russell Crowe co-stars as the ultimate insider, former tobacco executive Dr. Jeffery Wigand. When Wigand is fired by his employer -- one of the largest tobacco companies in America -- he agrees to become a paid consultant for a story Bergman is working on regarding alleged unethical practices within the tobacco industry. But what begins as a temporary alliance leads to a lengthy battle for both men to save their reputations, and much, much more.

As they soon find out, Corporate America will use all legal means at their disposal to save a billion-dollar-a-year habit. And as the corporate giants soon find out, Bergman and Wigand are honorable men, driven to smoke out the evidence.

Also starring Christopher Plummer as anchor Mike Wallace and Gina Gershon , The Insider will chill you with its cold, hard edge -- and thrill you with its unbelievable twists and turns.

Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Jeffrey Wigand, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Gina Gershon
Nominated for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor-Russell Crowe; Best Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Editing; Best Sound.
Box Office: Budget: $68 million. Opening Weekend: $6.712 million (1809 screens). Domestic Gross: $28.965 million.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 30 chapters; rated R; 158 min.; $32.99; street date 4/11/00.
Supplements: Production Featurette; Inside A Scene; Theatrial Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Lisa Gerrard

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/B+/D+

Was anyone really surprised when The Insider tanked at the box office? Al Pacino is a big-name actor but not one with a whole lot of box office clout; to find a film of his that grossed more than $100 million, you have to go back to 1990's Dick Tracy (which barely surpassed that threshold), while before that, only The Godfather movies were genuine hits. None of the other actors possessed any box office gusto, and while director Michael Mann enjoyed TV success with Miami Vice, his theatrical career offered only mildly popular films like Heat and Last of the Mohicans.

But at least those two films grossed in the sixty to seventy million dollar range, which blows away the meager $28 million take of The Insider. When one considers that the movie received consistently positive reviews, the poor box office seems even more disappointing for the suits at Disney.

Nonetheless, the fact it performed so badly remains predictable. A movie with no bankable stars made by a director with a cult following but almost no general public recognition that focusses upon a topic - the attempt to tell the truth about the lies from "Big Tobacco" companies - that appears uninteresting to most people... Why was anyone surprised so few saw the film, especially when it clocked in at a mildly intimidating 158 minutes?

In any case, it's too bad The Insider gained so few viewers because it's really a fairly compelling film. On the surface the subject seems so obvious as to be useless. I mean, it's not like many folks really don't know that cigarettes are bad for you, despite the claims of the Big Tobacco companies (which always remind me of the protests professional wrestlers used to make when asked if the "sport" was rigged). No one expects any shocking revelations to come from information; in fact, the only value attached to Jeffrey Wigand's (Russell Crowe) testimony about the misconduct of cigarette manufacturers stemmed from the fact it was one of the few times a company "insider" admitted these issues, which obviously paved the way to many, many lawsuits.

Although The Insider is saddled with a predictable plot - very little happens that can't be viewed a mile away - it remains compelling just because it's so well-executed. Mann knows his way around a thriller and can turn banal material into fairly exciting stuff. The film lacks any kind of action, which makes it a departure from his other work, but it still feels like an action movie because of the aggressive way in which Mann directs it. He moves things along at a strong clip and keeps the viewer attentive and absorbed at almost all points; I only lost interest when we saw the (very few) indications of journalist Lowell Bergman's (Pacino) homelife.

The acting seems uniformly excellent. Crowe received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Wigand, who he gives a corporate lifer's exterior by gaining weight and dyeing his hair but provides a strength of conviction that make Wigand's actions believable. Pacino doesn't stray far from his usual indignant self but at least he tones down the theatrics more than usual; I think he's been stuck in that ...And Justice For All "You're out of order!!!" mode for so long that he barely remembers what it was like not to scream most of his lines. Pacino's work here doesn't approach the heights he hit back in his Godfather days but it nonetheless seems more subtle and nuanced than usual.

The Insider isn't a great film, but it's a surprisingly provocative and compelling piece. I've never been a huge fan of Michael Mann, but his work here establishes that he can create a charged story without guns or battles, and the end result is a powerful and still entertaining film.

The DVD:

The Insider appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the DVD presents the film with a thoroughly excellent picture.

Sharpness appears virtually flawless throughout the movie, with no indications of any softness. Unfortunately, jagged edges appear too frequently; they're not omnipresent but they seemed more evident than they should. Moiré effects weren't an issue, but I did see some of the "ropiness" that often accompanies anamorphic downconversions on my 4X3 TV. The print itself seemed clean and clear; I noticed no evidence of grain, speckles, scratches or other flaws.

Colors appear largely subdued in this film, but they were relatively accurate and true; I saw no signs of bleeding or chroma noise. Black levels are deep and rich, and shadow detail looked clear and appropriately dense. All in all, I found the picture to look quite strong.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Insider offers a fairly modest mix, but it seems appropriate for the material. The soundstage maintains a definite forward bias; the front speakers clearly dominate the proceedings. That forward mix hangs toward the center for the most part - this is a very dialogue-intensive film, so one wouldn't expect otherwise - but it can spread nicely to the sides when necessary. The surrounds provide mainly ambient information such as very mild effects or some gentle echoing of the score.

Audio quality appears excellent throughout the movie. As I mentioned, dialogue dominates this movie, and it sounds terrific, with clear, natural and easily-intelligible speech apparent at all times. Effects seem accurate and realistic, and the score displays good dynamic range and clarity, with occasionally solid low end as well. Ultimately, The Insider features a modest but effective soundtrack.

Although it's not a full-fledged special edition, The Insider tosses in a few decent supplements. First up is a surprisingly good seven-minute featurette. Usually these programs are nothing more than extended trailers, but while this one didn't dazzle me, it tossed in a fair amount of information in its brief space. We see interview snippets from the key cast members and director Mann plus some clips of the real people who inspired the story, such as Wigand and Bergman. I also noticed that many of the film segments shown weren't used in the final product, which is unusual for a promotional vehicle like this. Obviously I wish the piece had been longer and more detailed, but it's still very good for what it is.

One other component of the DVD is called Inside A Scene. This purports to document a number of different aspects behind one segment of the film, the scene in which Wigand and Bergman first speak in a hotel room. We see the location scout's notes, some brief comments from Mann to the actors, the way the piece was written in the script, and also the scene as it appears in the film. It's not fascinating but it's a mildly interesting look at movie-making.

Finally, the DVD tosses in the film's theatrical trailer, one which really plays up the conspiracy thriller aspects of the movie. No, these extras aren't terribly substantial, but in comparison with most Disney DVDs, The Insider seems veritably packed with supplements.

A few controversial aspects of this DVD need to be mentioned. First regards a possible case of the old bait and switch. The package seems to indicate that the DVD includes an audio commentary from Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, but that's not the case; instead we find the featurette I already discussed. Here's what the box states: "Production Featurette - Audio Commentary With Al Pacino and Russell Crowe". As such, the case is technically correct, but wouldn't it have made more sense for them to simply state that the featurette included interviews with those two actors? The phrase "audio commentary" creates entirely different expectations.

The other controversial area regards Disney's recent - and despised by many - practice of adding advertisements to the starts of many of their DVDs. Tarzan initiated this trend, and we also see it on The Insider, which features previews for The Sixth Sense and Guinevere. Personally, I don't mind these clips, and since fewer of them appear here than on other DVDs (which had four or five), they're less intrusive. However, I understand why many dislike them, especially since some players apparently have trouble skipping over them. (My Panasonic machines handle them just fine.)

Despite those issues, The Insider makes for a pretty good DVD. The film itself is strong, with a compelling story that's very well-executed; this piece easily could have degenerated into TV movie territory, but the excellent cast and assured direction of Michael Mann makes certain that doesn't happen. The DVD offers very good picture and sound, although it lacks too many extras. The Insider definitely merits a rental, and may be worth a purchase if you think the material will continue to interest you.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.9125 Stars Number of Votes: 80
5 3:
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