Early in The Insider, Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), the disputatious talking-head mascot of 60 Minutes, loses his cool. He’s about to sit down in a Middle Eastern hideaway to interview the leader of the Hezbollah, and he’s pissed off. The sheikh’s men are making demands — demands about how close Wallace can sit during the interview — and the great white journalist will have none of it. Boldly, he throws a tantrum, screaming into the face of a burly, scowling henchman. The courage! The chutzpah!
Moments later, the matter is resolved, and the segment’s producer, Lowell Berg-man (Al Pacino), wanders over to ask Wallace if he’s properly warmed up. Wallace replies that, yes, he’s gotten his heart started. The entire tantrum, you see, was a charade, a TV-diva exercise in throat clearing. Plummer, flaunting a smile that looks like it could out-smarm Liberace’s, is the juicy quintessence of ham — smug, righteous, law-yerly, infantile, and vain. He seems to be playing Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, etc. rolled into one. With exquisite timing, the scene makes its point: 60 Minutes may be a journalistic enterprise, but it is also showbiz. That epiphany, however, is one that the movie soon forgets.
Back in the States, Bergman stumbles onto a land mine of a story. He makes contact with an obscure scientist named Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a dour family man with distressed grayish blond hair, who was fired from one of the major tobacco companies. Wigand is sitting on something he’s scared to talk about, and Bergman, a journalist who says that he cares about people (he’s described as a former radical who worked for Ramparts), quietly convinces him that it’s his moral duty to go public with the story.
Wigand decides to come clean — to reveal that tobacco companies chemically enhance the nicotine content of cigarettes, upping their addictive properties. Wigand, who has already been asked by his former company, under duress, to sign an Orwellian confidentiality pact, now finds his family terrorized by the powers of Big Tobacco. He is trailed by stalkers, and death threats appear on his computer screen. Yet he goes on, fearful but unfazed, convinced that he’s doing the right thing.