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[whitespace] Al Pacino Pack Journalism: Al Pacino goes after the cigarette companies in 'The Insider.'

Outside 'Insider'

The TV-news drama in 'The Insider' is too pat to catch fire

By Richard von Busack

DESPITE ITS TITLE, The Insider doesn't impart any sense of insider drama. Director Michael Mann has made this torn-from-today's-headlines drama so pat that you're never deluded into believing you're watching something gritty or forbidden. Although it's a true-life-hero story, the film is inspiring only in the abstract. Mann, obsessed with big men in conflict, never gets the smaller details that would give us a reverse angle on the material.

The insider in question is Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a recently fired research scientist for the Brown & Williamson tobacco company. Wigand is approached by the Berkeley-based Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer for 60 Minutes. Reluctantly, Wigand reveals that he knows a great deal about the inner workings of his former employers. Bergman's partner, Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), is ready to showcase Wigand, but then a management decision at CBS News blinds the story, turning Wigand into a "Mr. X" in silhouette. Wigand, who stuck his neck out, finds himself harassed by phone calls and abandoned by his wife (Diane Venora).

The real-life Wigand is a hero, and Bergman's own persistence is more than just honorable. Yet I think the audience for The Insider is expected to be a bit naïve to be able to see this story as a thriller, which is the way Mann perceives it and tells it. Essentially, the viewer needs to share Wallace's own sense of importance to feel that there's a drama over his having been overridden by the authorities.

Where the drama really lies, of course, is in the familial pressures, but Mann schemes them out simplistically. Mann sees Wigand as an ordinary man, but Crowe overdoes the ordinariness. His Wigand seems recessive, quiet, terribly bland. The tobacco company's lawyers dug up youthful misdeeds on Wigand, but Mann glosses over them as an invasion of privacy. He doesn't use Wigand's mistakes as a chance to broaden the drama of the whistle-blower's life.

Pacino shows off some more of his usual entropic acting. Everything's slowed down except for the wary eyes and the raspy voice, with the big argument scenes shouted out in a hoarse growl. But Pacino, now 60, is at an age when monomania looks like an old man's crankiness. Lately, Pacino's characters are interchangeable, always with the same mulish gravity. The insistence on the "problem"--an attempt to make it look like a matter of life and death, instead of a more complex matter--makes the film ultimately wearying. With all its cluttering details and obvious plot twists, The Insider is the cinematic equivalent of a 600-page bestseller that one wants to finish but never can read all the way to the end.

The Insider (R; 160 min.), directed by Michael Mann, written by Eric Roth and Mann, based on the story by Marie Brenner, photographed by Dante Spinotti and starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the November 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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