The Insider



An indicting news story - whose issues are imbedded in America’s collective (read: TV) mind – is a surefire starting point for a movie. Its potential drawing power is enhanced by the built-in guarantee to at least hit a nerve already exposed by the media’s probing around the insides of social consciousness.

Portraying fact as fiction is a challenging venture with higher stakes, it seems, in a country where the suspension of disbelief is a semipermanent state – where the makers of "ER" decide to make the information on their show more accurate, because viewers are picking medical advice out of the dialogue.

Michael Mann’s The Insider is a political thriller that plays the fictionalized reality game. Because of its audience and its subject – a Brown & Williamson executive whose inside scoop on dangerous carcinogens being added to cigarettes was taped and then suppressed by CBS in 1995 – it lumbers along with a heavy load of social responsibility in tow.

As much as that fact makes the movie more compelling, it also gives it the feel of a shady documentary filled with good intentions that win the audience’s sympathy, but never its trust. After all, The Insider works on the paradox of whistle blowing on a whistle-blowing master, "60 Minutes."

For all its grand intentions and epic posturing – big themes and a running time of almost three hours – The Insider seems no more self-assured about its own identity than we are. Is it a record-length public service announcement or a chance to see the unfailingly great Al Pacino playing a shrewd yet altruistic version of "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman?

Bergman is the one who – in the movie at least – fleshes out tobacco executive Jeffrey Wigand’s (Russell Crowe) boat-rocking story and fights to get it aired. He even squares off on the issue with CBS veteran Mike Wallace, who is played by Christopher Plummer as a much smugger, egomaniacal reporter – jaunting around in safari jackets and condescending grins – than the "real" Wallace appears to be on television.

But is The Insider a movie pretending to be the news or the news pretending to be a movie?

More so than other films of its ilk, The Insider makes a clear bid for raised consciousness about deceptive media and corporate terrorism of consumers. But it even goes a step further with an attempt to avenge unknowing, victimized smokers – echoed in the wheezing gasps of Wigand’s young asthmatic daughter – by making CBS look like a bunch of cowards bowing down to the golf-playing corporate demons of Big Tobacco.

The Insider’s second challenge, then, is creating an acceptable picture of a picture, in a context that makes sense and justifies the political activism that belies the "entertainment" format that contains it. And, unfortunately, this particular flight of film fantasy, complete with a surreal moment where Wigand has hallucinatory visions of his two young daughters on a hotel room wall, isn’t even strong enough to convince us of facts we already know.

Send comments to

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Detroit Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Metro Times Press Club for as little as $5 a month.