doaskdotell MOVIE REVIEWs of The Insider, Erin Brokovich, Yana’s Friends, Bordertown, Sin Nombre, Traffic, 13 Days, Topaz


Title:  The Insider

Release Date:  2002

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 155 min

MPAA Rating: R

Distributor and Production Company:  Buena Vista/Touchstone

Director; Writer: Michael Mann

Producer:  Michael Mann (wr Marie Brenner, Eric Roth)

Cast:    Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer (as "60 Minutes" interviewer Mike Wallace), Al Pacino, Colm Feore;


Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site:   tobacco



Movie Review of The Insider 

Touchstone Films (Buena Vista Distributors, Walt Disney Corp). Director: Michael Mann

Starring: Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer (as "60 Minutes" interviewer Mike Wallace), Al Pacino, Colm Feore; 155 Minutes; Panavision; MPAA: R (I think it could have been PG-13); 9.0/10

            This ambitious film intrigued me as a writer because it presented a problem (tobacco litigation) that has some rough parallels to my own pet issues (such as gays in the military), particularly with regard to intellectual property legal and ethical problems. I have certainly been concerned with such issues as conflict of interest and breach of loyalty, if not "tortious interference."

            The film kept me glued to my seat. Particularly captivating were the wide-screen settings of such places as Israel (opening sequence), Louisville, Ky., and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, as well as New York City. The tension is all psychological and dramatic. There are no car chases or special effects (save a shot of a burning wrecked car).

            There are two "stories" or major episodes (in the style of DADT chapters). The first concerns chemist Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), who gets fired from Brown and Williamson tobacco company for complaining to management when he "discovers" that his research is directed towards making cigarette smoking more addictive. He is fired for "poor communications skills," and the movie should have shown his firing. It does show the bru-ha-ha over his confidentiality agreement, which would affect his severance. When Wigand tries to get around it by giving a deposition in the Mississippi lawsuit, B&W gets an order from a Kentucky judge to stop him from testifying upon contempt of court. How he gets out of going to jail is not shown. He does become a high school chemistry teacher, doing lab practicals and balancing chemistry equations on the board.

            The second "chapter" deals with the struggles of CBS Producer Lowell Bergmann (Al Pacino) to protect his witness (Wigand) and get his interview aired. CBS corporate refused to allow the interview, not just out of a fear of a possibly frivolous lawsuit from B&W, but out of the effect on the stock price of just such a threat. Bergmann finally quits because he does not feel that, as a journalist, he can protect his sources in the future.

            The movie does pose the question "who owns the press" (indeed an issue in my own COPA litigation). In the age of the Internet, one may not have to raise through the tortuous ranks to practice effective "journalism."

            There has been controversy over whether this film meddles with the "hard facts." It does seem a bit self-righteous, and it's a little slower paced than say Oliver Stone's JFK or Nixon. I follow this with great interest because Do Ask, Do Tell lends itself to this kind of expansive historical treatment. And with DADT, the literal truth makes things stronger, although it's hard to compress years of history into less than three hours of 70-mm film.

            Some of the "moral" questions have me puzzled. Take, for example, the Mississippi (and other states') lawsuit to recover Medicaid costs associated with cigarette smoking. Given that medical care for the indigent will be a public responsibility (I'll skip the "libertarian" debate on this for now), doesn't the earlier deaths of smokers offset some of the medical costs (with lower welfare benefits)?

But if we accept the fact that the tobacco companies are engaging in "tortious" wrongdoing, then isn't Wigand "guilty" himself? A Ph.D. chemist should have "known" what his "research" would be used for, and indeed when he "found out," why didn't he quit? The reason presented in the film is "family first," including (ironically) a daughter with life-threatening asthma attacks and a wife with progressive multiple sclerosis. Well, "family first" goes down the tubes when he "tells" and gives his deposition! Anyway, he had no right to depend upon an immoral activity to support his lifestyle, and even (as a sole breadwinner) his family.


ERIN BROKOVICH (Universal, Columbia, 2000, dir. Steven Soderbergh. Wr. Susannah Grant, 130 min, R). 

Another important recent film about little people taking on the establishment is the joint Universal/Columbia (and Jersey Films) effort Erin Brockovich, the true story of a single mother who takes on a big utility (PE&G) in a water contamination case. The story does have precedents, such as A Civil Action (1998), Silkwood (1983) and even The China Syndrome (1979). 

I suppose that many people’s life-defining story develop out of coincidences, as does Erin’s.  She seems to have a chip on her shoulder that she is shunned as a twiced divorced woman who has developed no job skills because she’s been taking care of her babies. She gets broadsided by a doctor running a red light, and loses the case because of her behavior in court.  To get a job, she forces her way into her lawyer’s office and gets a clerk’s job “no benefits.”  She starts noticing irregularities in the paperwork of one case – why would a real estate case be involved with medical records. Now, here’s the rub: why would someone think it was appropriate to go out and gumshoe a case on her own, unless she had been told that was her job.  At that point in the movie, it seems she is taking confidential information to satisfy her own curiosity (a coworker has discouraged her from asking questions). She gets fired (for absence?) but pretty soon the boss (Mr. Masry, played by Albert Finney) realizes that she was right.  (So, was she doing right or wrong by starting this “investigation” on her own? Lawyers, answer that one.) With no legal or medical training, she tracks down the case herself, and with her provocative appearance and earthy speech, makes herself indispensable to the litigation that follows.

So sometimes us “little” people understand an issue better than the “professionals,” especially the lawyers who probe issues for a living. And she does this for her babies. Only later does she realize her independent self-worth. At one point, she tells her boyfriend: “This is the first time in my life people listen to me.”  That paradigm works with gay issues. I felt the same way after I published my first book (Do Ask Do Tell) and started public speaking.

This film is analyzed at a screenplay structure website and is probably taught in screenwriting classes. See

YANA’S FRIENDS:  (1999, Friends of Film/Israeli Film, dir. Arik Kaplun, 90 min)

This Israeli film, directed by Arik Kaplan has been called a “romantic comedy,” but it is bigger and more serious than has been recognized. This is the first major film to show Israel during the Persian Gulf War Desert Storm in 1991 when Saddam Hussein’s scuds were falling on Israeli cities. And this is the first film that I know of that showed circumcision on-camera.  The story was a bit artificial, with some comedy built around the idea of communal living in a stressed environment (the intimate scenes with gas M-17 protective masks??—never saw that before, either.) In Hebrew and Russian, subtitles, 90 Minutes.  Independent distributors (USA??)

Bordertown (2006, ThinkFilm/Capitol, dir. Gregory Nava, Mexico, R) Jennifer Lopez plays an American reporter who risks all to protect a girl murdered in Juarez as a result of the maquiladora politics. Blogger.

Sin Nombre (“Nameless”, 2009, Focus / Canana, dir. Cary Fukunaga, Mexico/Canada, 96 min, R). A girl from Honduras goes north on the trains, seeking to cross illegally to reunite with her family, and seeks the assistance of a gang member. The gang life is shown graphically. Blogger.  

TRAFFIC:  (2000  USA Films and Compulsion, Inc., dir. Steven Soderbergh, R, 147 min)

Deals with the war on drugs, USA Films, directed by Steven Soderbergh, with Michael Douglas

== This film fascinated me. There are not a lot of good "big" films on political or social issues these days-it's too hard on the bottom lines of most big studios. It's up to the independent filmmakers and companies like USA Films (or perhaps Artisan) to take this kind of risk.
== Does this film work? It pays homage to other movies on organized drug crime - the Godfather movies, Scarface. It also has the gritty look of an independent art film-- almost the "Blood Simple" look, which
USA Films rereleased this year (even of the SciFo {Pitch Black). It has both intimacy and an epic sweep to it, with great use of on-location shots.
== The plot threads did work for me, but I did have some questions. I wanted to know why the upper-class teenagers in this film (the daughter of the Drug Czar and her boy friends) went down the routes of sex and drugs. I meet a lot of college-age people in both the libertarian area and in the gay community, and this simply is not what is going on in real life that much any more. So I wanted more explanation.
== And there is the issue of the film's message. To wit, that the drug user is responsible for the drug epidemic, and especially for the way the drug wars oppress minority communities. But the libertarian view is that it is the fact that drugs are illegal that causes the problem in the first place.
== The script was a bit pristine or simple-minded at times when it expressed its views. It gets better when the teenage boy tells
Douglas about the customers coming into the black community, and when Douglas breaks down at his press conference. ("Public speaking is easy"?? Really?) But I think that the other political and social sermons could have been better put say is a scene with a Larry-King-Live show rather than at a party. I did note the cameo by Orin Hatch.
== There is also the technique of this film. The use of separate color filters to separate the plot threats and give the scenes with the drug dealers (esp. in
Mexico) a surreal, over-exposed look was an interesting technique for this style of film-making, although I would have preferred black-and-white or greatly muted colors. I also would have preferred a full wide-screen (2.3 to 1 rather than 1.8 to 1).
== But congratulations to
USA Films and all involved in the film. Let's see more big issue films like this in the future. Maybe a new trend again.
Bill Boushka contact me at

13 DAYS  (or Thirteen Days) (2000, New Line, Roger Donaldson, PG-13)

New Line Cinema is developing a reputation for in-your-face, political films (starting with Wag the Dog in 1997, not long before Clinton’s impeachment and involvement in the Balkans), and I hope that this continues under AOL ownership.  Here it teams up with Beacon Films to produce a compelling docudrama about the fortnight-long October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. I’ve discussed the CBS docudrama (1964; 2000) of a fictional nuclear showdown Fail Safe elsewhere on this site.  The film stars a very haggard, middle-aged Kevin Costner as an assistant, Kenneth O’Donnell to President Kennedy, played by Bruce Greenwood, and, yes, the phony New England accents (including Robert Culp playing Bobby Kennedy) got on my nerves. The director is Roger Donaldson. Much of the research material comes from the book The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, published in 1997 by Belknap (ISBN 0674179269).

Indeed, as the film posters say, we did come close.  I have to presume that our missiles in Turkey then really could have delivered devastating blows to Moscow (despite Kennedy’s claims to Khruschev that the base was obsolete); otherwise Kennedy simply could not have run the gauntlet of waiting with a “quarantine” (euphemism for a naval blockade) because the Soviet’s could have hit us first.  His reasoning for waiting was his not wanting to start war over Berlin, where sealed plans called for nuclear weapons to be used.  This crisis was the closest we ever came to Armageddon since 1945, although there were other dangerous moments, not the least of which were the possibility that Israel could have nuked Baghdad in 1991 after the scud attacks. To this day, it amazes me that we did not know about this before October 16, 1962.

And this brings up the problems with this kind of historical film-making. We know the ending; the worst (unlike the 1982 fictional films The Day After and 1983 Testament) did not happen, so Donaldson “entertains” us with shots of H-bomb weapons tests and U-2 flyovers (which did happen) and enactments of what the Cuban bases might have looked like. The characters seem aloof from “real people” and the O’Donnell family (except for the teenage son with the bad report card) seem phony.  Other films, like The War Game (1967) and even Horishima Mon Amour (1961) may have engaged the audience with “real people” more. 

But there was one episode that really did intrigue me: O’Donnell takes it upon himself to red-telephone no fewer that two young military field-grade officers and order them not to “tell” superiors if they get shot at, because their brass may use The Big One to protect them. Both young officers are cast as extremely appealing characters, practical but well attuned to the tradition of military honor and absolute truthfulness up the chain of command so well described by Joe Steffan in his book Honor Bound (1992) and ultimately a major debating point by the gay community in challenging the military gay ban in the 1990s. One of them (describing himself as religious) will indeed be shot down, perhaps the only American fatality of the episode. But we all know that at the highest levels military and international politics involves the deception of a diplomatic “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” as when Robert Kennedy, at the 11th Hour, presents the final terms to the Soviet Ambassador.

In fact, the attitudes of Kennedy’s military advisors were interesting. It’s often said that they wanted to justify themselves by having war, something I encountered during my own stay at the Pentagon while in the Army in 1968.  But it’s more than that. Some of them believed that war was necessary and could be contained, even nuclear war, and their belief provided a basis for their position in society, especially concerning social attitudes towards the proper roles for young men. This was a big issue for me.  But the Soviets apparently really did want to hold a nuke in our faces, possibly forcing us to capitulate to their psychologically driven (and disguised by left-wing collectivism and communism) desire to rule the world. This was more than just getting missiles out of Turkey or retaliation for the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

There is a brief episode involving the possibility of civilian evacuations of the East Coast, as has been previously revealed on ABC “Nightline.” Kennedy, his aides and their families would supposedly have been taken to Mt. Weather, between Routes 50 and 7 on a relatively diminished stretch of the Blue Ridge 55 miles from Washington. It’s dubious whether many families could have been taken. I personally visited the much larger shelter underneath the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., shortly after the appearance of my own DADT book in 1997.

Then, I want to mention what I was doing during this crisis. I was a patient at National Institutes of Health, as described at, after my own debacle at William and Mary. I had heard Kennedy’s October 22 speech in the George Washington University student union while on “pass” from the “mental” hospital, knew the gravity of it, and teased other patients on the ward about it (who would have been “dead weight” in an evacuation).  During that time there were all these discussions about latent homosexuality and whether psychiatrists would “certify” that I was capable of living in a dorm environment.  This was a curious foreshadowing to the day that I would serve in the military without incident and then fight the gay ban 30 years later. 

Topaz (1969, Universal, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, novel by Leon Uris, 144 min). A French agent Andre Deveraux (Frederick Stafford) finds a mole in the French government, comes to the United States, goes to Hitchcock and, with the help of some romance, smuggles some film about the Cuban buildup leading to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The encounters in Cuba itself are detailed, as Jaunita (Karen Dor) helps him get out and then is shot by the Commie general, with the spreading of her purple dress from overhead suggesting blood and recalling an effect from “Strangers on a Train.” The film is deliberative, and gives a good indication of just how precarious the world was. It is atypical Hitchcock, without big stars and even more serializing in the storytelling than usual. The scenes in the gem store in the beginning are great to look at; this is a sharp looking film, but echoes Hitchcock’s preference for standard aspect ratios for closeups, without Cinemascope.


Related reviews: Fail Safe


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