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At the Movies

Power and Faith: Films take on the big issues


Since I already knew the story of Jeffrey Wigand, the former Brown and Williamson research scientist who blew the whistle on the tobacco industry, I didn’t expect to get hooked by Michael Mann’s movie version, The Insider (Touchstone). Once again, I was wrong; though most will remember that Wigand’s eventual testimony led to a $246 billion settlement between the major tobacco companies and the 50 states, the director’s sure instinct for melodrama and the work of an especially strong cast kept me on the edge of my seat.

Russell Crowe as Wigand is the moral center of “The Insider,” successfully projecting the conflicting pressures on his conscience, but the movie is as much an exposé of the media as of tobacco executives. It opens with a jolt, as cars rush through the crowds and confusion of revolutionary Iran, where “60 Minutes” has arranged for a clerical leader to be interviewed by a status-conscious Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer).

I am hardly giving anything away by saying that the heart of the action has Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), Wallace’s idealistic collaborator, leading Wigand through understandable stages of hesitation before agreeing to appear on TV. The most shocking part of his eventual testimony is that the tobacco executives not only were fully aware of the medical dangers of smoking but worked to devise ways to deliver nicotine more powerfully to their customers.

Although I am less optimistic, a health worker with whom I saw the film believes that young smokers will realize they are stupid to subsidize such callous executives. “The Insider” is less about smoking than about the danger of opposing such powerful men. Since Wigand seems unwilling to come up with the research findings the cigarette executives want, he is quickly dismissed; Michael Gambon oozes with malicious confidence as the corporate boss who explains that a retirement package and medical benefits depend on signing a strict confidentiality agreement.

Though too long (155 minutes), and drowning its audience with a souped-up musical background, “The Insider” is a superior suspense thriller. Its weakness is that it makes the issues too neat. Since his opponents are marketing death, we feel good about Wigand’s decision to testify and are encouraged to feel as self-righteous as Bergman. Pacino, of course, gives weight to his role and avoids excessive ranting, but insists too much that he has remained faithful to his 1960s leftism. Russell Crowe is even more impressive as he sits slumped in a hotel room after his wife has left him and he learns that CBS has decided not to run his “60 Minutes” interview.

The truth is that both the movie and “60 Minutes” are affected by the ratings mentality, which encourages the idea that a personal exposé is the acme of investigative journalism; docudramas or “60 Minutes” programs on the maquiladoras in Mexico or the effect of sanctions in Iraq might attract smaller audiences but would be more courageous contributions to public enlightenment.

The Insider” is a lot more entertaining than the Belgian-made Rosetta (USA Films), this year’s award-winner at Cannes. The latter, however, though not aimed at those looking for escape after a tough week’s work, is a reminder of what cinematic integrity means. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, brothers whose first feature, “La Promesse” (praised in NCR) dealt with undocumented workers from Africa, here take a slow, penetrating look at a desperate 18-year-old girl searching for a job in a down-at-the-heels town near Liège. I haven’t seen such a persistently close-up study of a female protagonist since Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc,” but here there are no expressionist camera movements or awareness of impending beatitude to soften the impact.

Emile Dequenne, who shared the prize for best actress at Cannes, had not previously appeared before a camera; she hurtles through “Rosetta” as if she would crash through a brick wall in search of a job. A hand-held camera is constantly chasing her from behind as she moves from one place to another, hiding her town shoes in a drainpipe in the woods, sneaking into the trailer park where she lives with a mother who has collapsed into drunkenness and sex. Rosetta tries unsuccessfully to motivate her mother, which further feeds the desperation with which the girl presents herself to potential employers.

The Dardennes, who wrote and directed the movie, don’t play the obvious game of making Rosetta pretty -- though she would be, with the right make-up, hairdo and clothes. There are even times when it’s hard to sympathize with her, but the Dardennes say, “We couldn’t make a film about Rosetta if we didn’t love her. We can only hope the audience loves her, too, because if you don’t, she cannot live.”

This is a movie that is as compassionate as it is tough -- no tacked on happy ending, no syrupy background music to exploit sentimentality. When Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), a waffle-maker who has just met Rosetta, seeks her out at the trailer park to tell her of a job possibility, the rage and shame she normally keeps bottled up suddenly explodes.

At the end, the camera takes a final close-up of Rosetta’s face that made me think of the last shot of Chaplin’s “City Lights.” Yes, “Rosetta” is unbearable; it’s also unforgettable.

It’s getting tiresome, this business of the Catholic League winning acres of publicity for pointing out second-rate “attacks on the faith” -- as well as contributing to the cancellation of the first-rate TV series “Nothing Sacred.” Kevin Smith’s Dogma (Lion’s Gate) will be as disappointing to angry anti-Catholics as it was to me -- main-line reviewers made me expect something funnier -- but if bad taste becomes a punishable offense, jail construction will quickly swallow the current budget surplus.

For contrast, consider the case of Luis Buñuel, a director who knew enough about the history of heresy to direct the hilarious “Milky Way,” and was angry enough at the church to make “Nazarén,” which the Vatican film committee named one of the 50 best movies of all time. Smith is irreverent, but not as hilariously so as a party skit at the end of a Notre Dame freshman class in religion. There’s even a fair amount of piety pasted in before the end, though his basic theological position is American sentimentalism: It’s what’s in your heart that counts.

Smith may well be, as he says, a church-going Catholic; indeed, one of the bad effects of his parochial school education is that he seems to think Catholicism owns proprietary rights to religion in general. The framework of his movie, an indigestible mix of the book of Revelation and “The Wizard of Oz,” is that two fallen angels, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck) -- who were sent to Wisconsin instead of hell -- are told that a New Jersey cardinal (George Carlin), kicking off his “Catholicism! Wow” program, is promising a plenary indulgence to anyone who enters his newly reconsecrated cathedral. They figure this is a sure-fire way to have their slates wiped clean and get back to heaven; what “Dogma” insists on is that this would destroy God’s infallibility and bring about the end of the world.

Despite repetitious scatology, Smith has some good one-liners. I rather like the idea of a “lonely but funny” God taking time out to play skee-ball in Asbury Park. But he includes too many elements extraneous to his plot and feeds his young target audience a lot of unnecessary violence; at the end he has to use a quick dissolve to clear the set of dead bodies.

I’d have been happier if he’d left out a couple of penis gags, the “Golgotha shit demon” and the scene (some say it was the reason Disney made its subsidiary Miramax abandon “Dogma”) in which fallen angel Matt Damon kills off the media executives of the group marketing Mooby the Golden Calf, but the Catholic League should relax: Smith’s movie doesn’t mean the end of the world.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999