Fuck it. Let’s go to court. —Jeffrey Wigand
I never left a source hang out to dry, ever! Abandoned! Not ’till right fucking now. When I came on this job I came with my word intact. I’m gonna leave with my word intact. Fuck the rules of the game! —Lowell Bergman
Michael Mann’s The Insider is one hell of a movie. Awesome in so many ways. And I mean the old, pre-marketing-sense-of-the-word “awesome.” It’s not just very good, it’s not just well made, it’s not just thought provoking. Mind you, it’s all that. But it’s more. It’s awesome.
Simply taking a look at the stills would suffice. Mann certainly has a passion for light. If you look at his imagery, it seems as if color film was invented specifically for him and his cinematographer, Dante Spinotti.
Then, there’s the music. The composition. The cutting. The editing. Everything fits right in. Not to mention the actors. Al Pacino as 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman is a perfect choice. And you almost wouldn’t believe that the second leading character, the fragile, distraught, white-haired chemist Jeffrey Wigand was performed by Russell Crowe – the same actor who would embody the beefy and fearless Gladiator in the homonymous blockbuster just a year later.
The technical mastery and the starring in conjunction with the setting create a stunning atmosphere. The movie takes place in the mid-Nineties and provides an intriguing glance into the heydays of old media and investigative journalism.
Mann celebrates every single moment of it: There are media people gathering for coffee in newsrooms, reporters fighting against their corporate bosses, unofficial meetings with colleagues in bars and with informants in back-alleys.1
The night scene where an issue of the New York Times is dispatched in the city is so haunting it’s hard to believe the movie was already shot in 1999. Sure, newspaper circulation was down by that time already, but the current crisis was still far away. Mann either sensed already what was going to happen to traditional media, or he unconsciously produced a beautiful swan song of investigative journalism as we knew it.
The Hero That Wasn’t One
The most important thing of all, though, is how it all fits in with the plot. “Logically, Michael Mann’s The Insider shouldn’t be the edge-of-your-seat, gut-churning thriller that it is,” Newsweek writes. They are right: Despite a complicated and even dry topic, the film captures the viewer from the first moment.
The Insider narrates the story of Jeffrey Wigand, who worked as a chemist in R&D for tobacco company Brown & Williamson and wants to reveal the dirty tricks big tobacco is using to conceal their knowledge of the addictive potential of nicotine. He gets in touch with Lowell Bergman who wants to feature his story.
Unsurprisingly, big tobacco isn’t precisely thrilled about that and tries everything to prevent Wigand from talking. And big tobacco isn’t playing nice: The chemist receives death threats. He becomes the victim of a smear campaign. He is being followed by strangers. Gag orders are issued, and every imaginable judicial trick is used in an attempt to silence him.
Even though Bergman does everything in his power to broadcast his story, the corporate bosses at CBS get cold feet. They want to cancel the feature, and this is where Wigand becomes really, really frightened. Not just a little worried, to be clear. Not just anxious. Not just afraid. After all the psychological and legal threats, Wigand is scared shitless!
What’s more, he isn’t any kind of natural born hero. He’s scared and he knows it. He’s scared and he shows it! He’s certainly not perfect, certainly not a shining example of the exemplary citizen: Wigand drinks, Wigand is a little choleric, and Wigand sometimes obviously doesn’t know quite well what he is doing when he loses his nerve.
But here’s the clou: Despite all that, Wigand does the right thing. He does the right thing even though all odds are against him: He loses his job. He loses his health benefits. He loses his wife. He loses his reputation. He even runs danger to lose his freedom and get sent to prison.
And still, he decides not to back down any longer.
Thanks to the support he receives from Bergman, Wigand decides not to accept all that legal crap without fighting back. He decides not to take the easy way out. He decides to pull through.
In the very moment when everybody else would just cry and run away and hide under a pile of pillows, Wigand is fed up. He has reached what I would like to call his ‘Fuck It’ Moment. And he goes all in.
Here’s how it works:
The secrets from the tobacco labs disclosed by Wigand lead to lawsuits in all 50 US states. Eventually, a $246 billion settlement is made by the companies with Mississippi and other States. Despite it all, whistleblower Wigand prevails and gets his life back. Real story.2
Fuck It and Do the Right Thing
How could I miss to look at the nice lesson behind it all? Just think about it for a moment:
One guy deciding to do the right thing.3
A $246 billion settlement and the reality behind the tobacco business – at least partially – revealed.
And probably thousands and thousands of lives saved in the aftermath.
No matter how scared you are: Once the stakes are high enough, you can pull it through. Once you reach your ‘Fuck It’ Moment, you are free to do the right thing.
- The ‘Fuck It’ Moment leads to overcoming Resistance.
- The ‘Fuck It’ Moment leads to taking a leap of faith.
- The ‘Fuck It’ Moment leads to posting that blog post.
- The ‘Fuck It’ Moment leads to leaving that job.
- The ‘Fuck It’ Moment leads to burning that bridge.
If an imperfect, frightened, nervous man like Wigand can do it, why shouldn’t you? If he has the guts to take on the power of a multibillion-dollar industry, why shouldn’t you have the guts to have that serious conversation with your boss, your secret love, your publisher?
As far as I can tell, consciously looking for your personal ‘Fuck It’ Moment before it’s too late is always time well spent. And you’ll get bonus points if you save the world along the way.
- Of course, this is not necessarily ‘better’ than today’s journalism. But it certainly creates some nostalgia: Deadlines are postponed in order to investigate issues thoroughly – not by an hour, but by an entire week. Unthinkable nowadays.
What’s more, everybody in the movie is wearing trench coats, so that the pre-Wikileaks back-alley meetings to exchange photocopies of insider information become even more atmospheric. No email, no Twitter, no text messages. It’s a time where communication is still dominated by fax and phone booths. Sure, there are some huge ass cell phones carried around, but that only serves to notice the difference.
Good stuff, really! [↩]
- More or less, at least. [↩]
- And, of course, one reporter protecting his source, standing by his word. [↩]