The shield between concentrated power and the public has become thinner by one.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

For decades Mike Wallace has been the visible sparkplug of CBS's premiere news show, "60 Minutes." Cultivating an aura of incorruptibility, he has been a terrier shaking targets in his teeth to protect a free press and to publicize injustice. Sometimes the terrier shook a mouse, sometimes a lion, but in the case of a momentous story on the tobacco industry, the terrier froze in the face of power. Wallace sold out.

The Insider tells this story of backstage journalism through the eyes of Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a fabled producer for Wallace, a dogged investigator known for loyalty to his sources. In the opening scene, Bergman is setting up an interview for Wallace with an Islamic fundamentalist suspected of complicity in bombing the U.S. Embassy. Bergman manipulates; Wallace throws a tantrum. The scene is an announcement that Bergman's work is the meat of the show, that Wallace's legendary verbal stiletto springs from an enormous ego.

Back in the U.S., Bergman contacts Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a former corporate vice president and head of research for Brown & Williamson, the nation's third largest tobacco company. Dr. Wigand, formerly a health scientist with both Johnson & Johnson and Charles Pfizer, took the tobacco job for the promise of big pay and big benefits without realizing, he says, that the B & W brass were directing a calculated conspiracy against the American people. He decides to tell the story to Lowell Bergman for "60 Minutes."

In an outrageous abuse of corporate power, B & W, which had already fired Dr. Wigand, intimidates him with threats of violence. In the disgraceful scene we all remember from the evening news, the gray-suited puppets of big tobacco perjure themselves before congress, professing innocence of the addictive nature of their product. In his own chilling deposition, Dr. Wigand says, "We are a 'nicotine delivery system'." Nicotine, he says, is a drug that crosses the blood barrier to the brain, enhanced by the chemical addition of ammonia for a quick fix to the lungs.

When Brown & Williamson presses CBS not to air the Wigand show, the network capitulates in order to avoid prolonged litigation and possible disruption of existing merger talks with Westinghouse. The network known for propelling just such scandals into the public forum kills this story of massive, deliberate corporate malfeasance. It is chilling to hear Mike Wallace, the terrier, justify himself by saying, "I'm not going to spend the end of my days in the wilderness of public radio."

In a finely restrained performance, Christopher Plummer plays Wallace with the smirk of entitled power. Russell Crowe is superb as the crushed whistle-blower, and Al Pacino is stubborn and emotional as Lowell Bergman. In a memorable example for us all, the principled producer quits CBS, and takes himself and his integrity into the "wilderness of public radio" even after Wallace recants and airs the show. The shield between concentrated power and the public has become thinner by one.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 498
Studio : Touchstone Pictures
Rating : R
Running time : 2h37m

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