Michael Mann’s The Insider emerged in the halcyon days of 1999, at the tail end of period of seemingly endless economic expansion and progressive liberal reform across the United States, indebted to and reflective of the pervasive cynicism and paranoia of the mid-‘70s American political cinema. Like Joe Frady, the overzealous investigative reporter at the center of Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View, Mann regards 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman as an honorable man beset by an institutional corruption he can sense but can’t clearly perceive, driven less by conviction in antiquated notions of justice than by a simple, insatiable desire to learn the truth. In 1974, skepticism seemed only a natural response to the revelations of real-life conspiracies, a consequence of popular interest in the Watergate scandal and the Zapruder film; the growing sense that our most reliable authorities could no longer be trusted rapidly bled into the cinema of the period, resulting in a wealth of political thrillers whose principal tenet was defeatism.
In 1999, this sentiment seemed incongruous: feelings of political acrimony that calcified during the Reagan and Bush years were largely supplanted, with the arrival of the Clinton administration seven years earlier, by the left’s enthusiasm for sweeping Democratic legislation and the positive change it promised to effect. In other words, The Insider seemed out of touch with the contemporary American sensibility, a vestige of decades-old pessimism whose melancholy spirit and fundamental doubt in the system were a far cry from the more freewheeling fantasy wish-fulfillment offered by a drama like American Beauty, released the same year. Many of the year’s most successful entertainments (The Matrix and The Sixth Sense), of course, were similarly interested in illusion and deceit, but The Insider directed its criticisms toward problems actually locatable in the real world. Perhaps that’s why the film failed at the box office while The Mummy and The Phantom Menace scored big: For a popular culture finally comfortable with ostensibly safe peace and politics, the suggestion that all was not so well in the world might have hit too close to home.
The Insider‘s central revelation isn’t that cigarettes are a serious health risk or even that cigarette manufacturers actively encourage their consumption all the same (though we do take this information for granted now more than we ought to), but rather that the power and influence of the tobacco industry extends too far for dissent of any kind to affect it. It’s an effective thriller when it focuses on the more overtly threatening activity of Big Tobacco as it surreptitiously goes to work on dismantling the life of a noble whistleblower, which is also when it relies the most heavily on the conventions of the genre; shady agents skulking around golf courses at night and bullets left ominously in mailboxes are as unnerving in the moment as they are iconic in hindsight. But one of the film’s canniest qualities is the manner in which it folds conspiratorial intrigue into processes we tend to think of as silently efficient and unmitigated by outside pressures, from broadsheet reportage at a major national newspaper to the recording of disposition in an ordinary court of law: Here the checks and balances on which we rely for the sanctity of the system are themselves subject to coercion from sources with money and power, and any man intent on confronting this kind of injustice is liable to be paid off, silenced, or worse.
This is where The Insider not only diverges from the template of mid-‘70s political cinema, but essentially reimagines its application: Rather than express repression and control as functions of a more general cultural anxiety and skepticism toward power, the film directly locates repression and control as the long arms of burgeoning corporatism in America. The villain here, such that there is one, is Big Tobacco as a coherent institution, one whose operations can’t be thwarted even on a small scale. That’s why the ending of the film, though it culminates with the minor victory of 60 Minutes finally airing its suppressed broadcast, is characterized more by a feeling of defeat than a celebration of hope: Lowell Bergman has been through the looking glass and seen that journalistic integrity and a world-class reputation are worth nothing in the face of higher interests, and he’s acutely aware, in the final estimation, that his function in the system relies on his continued ignorance of the way that system really works. His word means nothing if the money isn’t circulating; their exposé bought awareness, but effected no substantial change. The film is basically self-defeating to that end: Its own dramatization of the issues, despite appropriately valorizing the efforts of those who dared fight the system, amounts to no more than a fruitless exaltation of dissent. Lowell Bergman and Jeffrey Wigand couldn’t put a dent in Big Tobacco, and neither could Michael Mann. That’s the tragedy that justifies all the skepticism and paranoia in the world.
The Insider has a reputation as Michael Mann's least stylized film, and in the sense that it isn't characterized by either the color-coded impressionism of his '80s output or the radical digital experimentation of his more recent films, that's a fair assessment. But Disney's new Blu-ray, sourced from a recent digital restoration, proves Mann's prowess as a visual stylist even when operating well within the borders of a classical aesthetic; while the film's overall look tends toward naturalism, each shot shows an extraordinary attention to the basics of color, composition, and detail. This 1080p transfer is suitably flawless: The exquisite images, some of Mann's last to be shot on 35mm, are presented with precisely the right balance of high-definition clarity and filmic texture, with just enough grain showing through to feel lived-in rather than squeaky-clean. The often wildly oscillating color shifts—where the dominant palette is inverted even within simple shot/reverse-shot sequences—shows off this transfer's superb brightness and saturation levels. This disc's included 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is similarly impressive, boasting rich bass levels and a clearly delineated vocal mix.
Major studios rarely outfit serious, notably "adult" dramas with much in the way of extra content, so it should come as no real surprise that The Insider includes precious little. A behind-the-scenes EPK is rote, but, by virtue of its interviews with the real Jeff Wigand and Lowell Bergman, remains a noteworthy inclusion, and the film's original theatrical trailer is what it is. (Side note: An advertised "Inside a Scene" feature, listed on the box and in the press materials, is nowhere to be found on this disc.)
The Insider, one of the most accomplished American dramas of the 1990s, arrives on Blu-ray sporting a suitably exceptional A/V transfer.