Having been an early teen of the late 90’s, the words ‘big tobacco’ will always hold a variety connotations. Not only were we systematically being taught every year in school the whole drugs-are-bad campaign, but we were also reminded in the news what terrible people were trying to sell us cigarettes. I especially remember a lady with a fake tan telling our class about the LIES! (written in foot tall pink chalk) that the tobacco companies would tell us to buy their products. We got these speeches in every way you could imagine between the ages of eleven and fifteen. By twelve I was sick of the warnings about peer pressure, I wasn’t cool enough for anyone to offer my a cigarette anyway. Meanwhile, our parents were given a much more thrilling perspective on the wrongdoings of the tobacco companies with The Insider. Unfortunately, fourteen year old me probably wouldn’t have cared for it, or for Russell Crowe dawning that aged, graying look.
Crowe plays Jeffrey Wingand, a research chemist recently fired from the tobacco company Brown & Williamson. He has a wife and two daughters, one who has severe asthma attacks. He explains that he decided to work for the tobacco company for the money and for the hefty health insurance. We completely sympathize with him.
When a producer from 60 Minutes, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), contacts Wingand with questions about the tobacco companies, Wingand is pulled between his confidentiality agreement and morality. Without even giving any information, Wingand starts receiving threats from his old employer. This is the last thing Bergman wanted, but seeing that Wingand is already in the water, asks if he would go on 60 Minutes to tell his story. Wingand agrees, putting his trust in Bergman and the threats become more serious.
Everything rides on the 60 Minutes interview where Wingand exposes telling information against the tobacco companies. Most of us who lived through the 90s will recognize the footage used of tobacco CEOs testifying under oath that they believe nicotine to be non-addictive. Running that historic piece of film within Wingand’s interview explaining his research, findings and how everyone knew nicotine was addictive is much more effective than lecturing with pink chalk. It makes our blood boil when Wingand continues and explains that part of his job was to manipulate nicotine with harmful chemicals to make it even more addictive.
The real turn in the film takes place when CBS refuses to air the full interview for fear of a lawsuit. Suddenly, it seems that Bergman is getting just as screwed over as Wingand by his own company. This draws similarities between all large organizations to the dreaded Big Tobacco and turns the film into a double-or-nothing round of David versus Goliath.
While the film is a smart dramatic thriller, worthy of its multiple Oscar nominations, director Michael Mann never lets it become visually appealing. The abundance of blue filters makes it feel so cold and unnatural, it became a distraction for me. But for turning an important event that most Americans of the 90’s were itching to learn the truth about into a thrilling narrative, The Insider gets my approval.
“What do I tell the next source when the next tough story comes along, huh?”