Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Insider (1999)

Dir. Michael Mann
Starring: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora

Fiat justitia ruat caelum – let justice be done though the heavens fall. This old Latin legal maxim came to mind while watching The Insider. It is a film about risking it all to do the right thing.

Dr Jeffery Wigand (Russell Crowe) is chief research and development scientist at the Brown & Williamson tobacco company in Louisville, Kentucky. He is fired after disagreements with the company. By chance Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), producer for the current affairs programme 60 Minutes, stumbles upon him and scents a story. Wigand is potential dynamite. He knows that the executives at B&W regard themselves as being in “the nicotine delivery business” – contrary to their testimony to Congress when they stated that they believed that cigarettes were not addictive. He further knows that they have manipulated nicotine, refused to remove chemicals linked to cancer and are unwilling to remove any health-risk elements for fear of harming sales.

The difficulty is that Wigand signed a confidentiality agreement when he left B&W. This agreement guarantees his settlement. By breaking it he is putting his family’s lifestyle at risk. He finds himself followed and the victim of threats against his family; when he reports these to the FBI they treat him as the criminal. This merely motivates him to record an interview with 60 Minutes for release at a later date. Bergman is advised that if he can get Wigand’s testimony into court evidence that would invalidate his confidentiality agreement. Wigand therefore heads to Mississippi, where the state attorney is suing tobacco companies over health costs caused to smokers. En route Wigand is served with a restraining order; by speaking he runs the risk of arrest and imprisonment upon returning to Kentucky. He speaks, he returns, and he finds that his wife has taken their children and is filing for divorce. He has risked everything in order to tell his tale.

The smoking gun: talking can prove hazardous to your health

It is at this point that the corporate executives at CBS, 60 Minutes’s network get cold feet. They fear that Brown & Williamson could sue them for “tortuous interference”. Additionally a smear campaign is launched against Wigand by the tobacco firms to utterly discredit him. And so CBS re-edit the segment and broadcast the episode without Wigand’s testimony. The heart is ripped out of the story. The scientist is crushed; he has risked everything, and he has not had any sort of vindication.

He is not the only one crushed. Lowell knows what Jeffrey has risked to blow the whistle, and is uncomfortable with losing his own reputation for integrity: “I never left a source hang out to dry, ever! Abandoned! Not till fucking right now. When I came on this job I came with my word intact. I’m gonna leave with my word intact.” It is now his turn, in a neat reversal of roles, to risk his position by taking on the corporate power at CBS. He argues that 60 Minutes show the unexpurgated version, suggesting that a lawsuit would endanger current plans to sell the network (plans which would make the top executives very wealthy individuals). The channel head Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) refuses to make him a martyr for the free press by sacking him and instead sends him on an enforced vacation. Lowell hires investigators to rebut the smear campaign and sends their results to the Wall Street Journal. In the end he leaks the entire story to the New York Times, which castigates the network. CBS are eventually forced by the scandal to show the full interview between veteran 60 Minutes host Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) and Wigand. The defence of the “seven dwarfs” of Big Tobacco crumbles. Lowell resigns. And Wigand starts a new career as a high school science teacher.

Where it sticks to the whistle-blowing, the film is great. It starts with a Lebanese interlude to establish the characters of Bergman and Wallace. There is also a subplot about the Unabomber that doesn’t really make sense.

Pacino might get star billing, but it is Russell Crowe’s film. Crowe gives a nuanced performance as the complex scientist. Crowe is usually the most alpha of alpha males, running around in a little leather skirt in Gladiator or being the charismatic outlaw leader we saw in 3:10 to Yuma. But here he hides beneath snowy hair and behind thick spectacles. He even drives a Volvo for heaven’s sake! Wigand is the prime mover in The Insider and it is he who has to make the bulk of the brave moral decisions that drive the story forward; Pacino’s Bergman merely “greases the rails” (though, as stated, he later makes his own stand to force the truth to come out). The key question asked is: what would you risk to inform the public? Wigand was presumably a very bad recruit for a tobacco firm, as he was proud of his past career working for health firms (even if one of them was Union Carbide, architects of the 1984 Bhopal disaster which killed thousands). At first his priorities are clear: protect his family. The health coverage included as part of his severance package is critical for a man whose daughter has severe asthma. While upset at being fired he states that he thinks the package agreed was fair. What takes him down the route of blowing a gaping hole right through the confidentiality agreement? Is it lust for fame? No – there are no signs that he gets off on having a security detail or a blue light escort. Part of it is probably pique. He dislikes having his integrity questioned and when threatened his natural reaction is to fight back. But mostly it is a moral responsibility. He knows that executives at Brown and Williamson are aware of health risks attached to their product but will not take action to mitigate them as that might damage sales. This is a very clear health risk that he feels needs to be exposed. And he ultimately judges that it is vital that the public become aware of this, even if he must be crucified to do so. When he is deliberating whether to go to court in Mississippi he asks himself what has changed. “You mean since this morning?” Lowell asks, referring to the Kentucky gagging order. “No”, Wigand replies. “I mean since whenever.” He may have been handed a gagging order but that does not alter the fact that the truth needs to come out. The gagging order does not make the public health risk lesser, or the culpability of the B&W executive lesser, or the information he can reveal less important. The truth has a life of its own, independent of his mere mortal frame. In the end we only have his words when Mike Wallace asks whether he thinks it was worth risking it all to blow the whistle: “At times I wish I hadn’t done it. There were times I felt compelled to do it. If you ask me would I do it again, do I think it’s worth it? Yeah, I think it’s worth it.”

What have I learnt about Kentucky?
This is the wealthy Kentucky. Corporate power, big suburban houses and skulduggery in high places.

When I think of tobacco in America I think of North and South Carolina. I did not know that Kentucky was tobacco country, and had never heard of Brown & Williamson, the third biggest of America’s ‘Big 7’ tobacco giants. Moreover, they seem to have a quite remarkably inordinate amount of power in Kentucky. We’re talking suborning the Feds and getting the Kentucky Supreme Court to issue gagging orders.

What I think I’ve learnt more generally about America, however, is that the different states really are different political entities. Here we saw Mississippi suing tobacco to reclaim the health costs on tobacco-related illnesses. Individual states run their own health service systems (or used to – I don’t know how that has changed with the Obama reforms that the Republicans seem so vehemently opposed to). Frankly, I’m not sure I ever knew what the American system of health coverage was. I suppose in the UK we picture American doctors riffling through patients’ wallets before they drag them from the train wreck, but it’s clear that states did cover some health costs.

Can we go there?
The action in The Insider darts around the United States – from Kentucky to New York to Mississippi to Nebraska. A lot of it was filmed on location – the opening scene in Lebanon was shot in Israel and even Bergman’s enforced vacation was shot in the Bahamas (what’s the betting Pacino insisted on that?). Crowe had the rather less glamorous backdrop of Louisville, Kentucky, for most of his scenes. When Wigand and Bergman have their first meeting they really are in Louisville’s Seelbach Hotel. Their second face-to-face, in Wigand’s car, occurs with them parked on the banks of the Ohio River, looking across to the Colgate factory in Clarksville, Indiana. Wigand’s homes were on Croydon Circle in Hurstbourne and Seneca Park. He later goes to teach at the duPont Manual High School .

Crowe and Pacino did have a sojourn in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The courtroom used in the film was the actual one in which Wigand’s real-life deposition was taken. Likewise the house belonging to Richard Scruggs (Colm Feore) was actually the real Scruggs’ home; unfortunately it was levelled by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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