The Insider Review

We can approach The Insider primarily as a Michael Mann film, and though somewhat atypical it still fits nicely alongside his more action-driven works. We could view it as a movie about how big time news reporting works in the corporate world. It can also be seen as a kind of anti-tobacco, cinematic Surgeon General's warning. All are valid ways to look at the picture but it most reminds me of a paranoid thriller like the ones that were done so well in the 1970s. Portions even look like they could've been shot by Gordon Willis. There are ample scenes of nervous tension and unease, cloaked in the shadows of dangerous possibility. It's with this particularly in mind that the 1999 film holds up beautifully.

The story of a 60 Minutes producer who talks a former tobacco executive into appearing on the television program only to have the network balk at airing the interview due to legal concerns manages, both then and now, to be far more tense and involving than its synopsis might indicate. Because we're essentially given a subjective point of view, limited to what's occurring with Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) in his dealings with the tobacco company Brown & Williamson, the fear is magnified. It's an individual and his family seemingly being pursued and threatened by a monolithic corporation using actions akin to organized crime. The men behind the threats are hardly seen as Mann chooses to emphasize only Wigand's perception of what occurs. So most everything becomes a potential danger. Like Wigand, we're left with having to keep our guard up at all times out of necessity.

Since the film didn't exactly have the luxury of ambiguity about right and wrong concerning its whistleblower and his former employer, the choice to build conflict elsewhere was a sound one. The Insider spins its companion parallel story to Wigand's plight with the debate among those at the television network CBS on whether to actually air the interview that basically preemptively ruined his life. Al Pacino as producer Lowell Bergman has a memorable monologue built around rhetorical questions that cynically puts a bow on the entire ordeal. It's sometimes become difficult to determine whether Pacino is angry on film but here he basks in a kind of showboating disgust over the decision by CBS to not air an interview because the contents are not only true but increasingly so. Both he and Crowe are really solid throughout the film, the former serving as anchor to the meatier role of the latter. (They're still upstaged by Christopher Plummer playing Mike Wallace, and I've never understood how he failed to be Oscar-nominated for his work here.)

To date, The Insider marks the only time Michael Mann has gotten any real awards season attention, earning both him and the film Academy nods, and he probably had to venture away from his established comfort zone as much as he ever has. The acclaim was certainly not unearned. That he could adapt his style and concerns of solitude and professionalism and trust so successfully into a movie like this was indeed impressive. I'm not sure we've yet had an undeniably better or more complete film from him. Mann had made Heat four years earlier. He would go on to do the disappointing biopic Ali before regaining his stride with Collateral and Miami Vice. The strengths in his crime dramas are probably higher than what we get with The Insider but the emotions feel somewhat different and more developed here. This feels like an expansion of Mann's talents, and, other than the disappointing box office, I'm unsure why he hasn't continued down that path.

That's ultimately something of a fool's concern since we've still been dealt a collection of films by someone who makes a certain kind of picture better than anyone of his generation. Mann also has quite a knack for directing movies which age well. As alluded to earlier, The Insider is very much evident of this. It still crackles. Thanks to Dante Spinotti's cinematography, the film is lit and framed exceptionally well. This cold, foreboding look adds another moody layer, making it feel as relevant and immediate as it did upon release. And if you consider The Insider against its competition in the Best Picture category for 1999, it might be hard to say the same of The Sixth Sense, The Green Mile, The Cider House Rules or, that year's winner, American Beauty.

The Disc

The Insider comes to region-free Blu-ray from Buena Vista Home Entertainment. The disc is dual-layered.

The 1080p HD transfer finds the film looking perhaps better than ever but certainly improved over the earlier DVD release. In an aspect ratio listed as 2.39:1, the movie exhibits strong detail, noticeably good in the many darker scenes. The often cool color scheme might be more pronounced here but there's little indication of this being incorrect. Certainly nothing registers as amiss. The overall impression is that it's a marked improvement from the standard definition offering and should make the decision to upgrade an easy one.

Audio is presented via an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that comes through as impressively rich and balanced. Dialogue sounds a little low in the mix at times, not uncommon with Mann's films, but I wouldn't say there's any real trouble here. The music emerges with an ethereal quality that is almost revelatory. Dubs are available in French 5.1 Dolby Digital, Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital, and Portuguese 5.1 DD. There are optional subtitles, white in color, in English for the hearing impaired, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

The extra features on the disc are rather paltry, especially considering what the back of the package clumsily describes. We're promised a "Production Featurette" and, separated by a dash, an "Audio Commentary With Al Pacino And Russell Crowe." I have no idea what this latter part refers to because there's nothing of the sort included here, either as part of the featurette or otherwise. Said featurette (7:05) is a non-HD piece from the film's original release that would just be EPK sort of fluff if not for the presence of interviews with the real Jeffrey Wigand and Lowell Bergman as well as their portrayers and Michael Mann.

Also nowhere to be found but listed on the back is "Inside A Scene," though the film's theatrical trailer (2:33) is here (but not in HD).

Advertising in the form of Sneak Peeks can be accessed via the menu. Teases for the television shows Revenge and Red Widow are joined by one for the upcoming Blu-ray of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

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