Earlier this semester, I was fortunate enough as an undergrad to take a mini-class at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. Pretty sweet, eh? Well, it gets better. One of my instructors was Lowell Bergman. Yeah, that Lowell Bergman.
Though he didn’t speak much (it was a guest-lecture class) and the course lasted only seven weeks, I feel like I learned something merely by sitting in the same room as the man. He’s on Frontline, for God’s sake. So when I found out that there was a movie made about him, I naturally had to see it.
I don’t think I’d be going out on a limb here if I say that when Al Pacino plays you in a movie, you’ve definitely made it. I suppose the same can be said of Russell Crowe. But DAMN. I’d take that as a serious compliment. Anyway, maybe it’s my Cal Bears bias, or my journalism bias (ironic, isn’t it?), but I thought this was a beautiful movie. A little long, but still beautiful. Al Pacino and Russell Crowe acted the hell out of this, bringing to life a very journalism-centric story and making it into a drama that needed to be told.
The specificity of the story was made universal by Crowe, I think. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the biggest Crowe fan, but this was by far the best work I’ve ever seen him do. It was hard to even see the movie star behind the big glasses, gray hair, Southern accent and slight Bill Murray-esque demeanor (not in the comedic sense, mind you). His character, former tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand, one to whom few people would ordinarily relate, suffers the consequences of life as it happens: one minute, you’re at the top of the world, the next you’re fired and immediately after that a series of unfortunate or random events take the lead in a tumble downward that scatters your family and your credibility. That’s real life, and it sucked for Wigand pretty hard.
But what sucked even more was the scam that Bergman (Pacino), Wigand (Crowe) and Mike Wallace (the ever-stoic Christopher Plummer, SWOON!!!) uncovered. Big tobacco has been screwing the world for so long that we’ve gotten used to it. They’ve been denying the fact that their product is a horrible, addictive, cancer-causing shitstick of death and blindly manufacturing cigarettes for pure profit. I will say that, while people now have no right to sue big tobacco because they should be fully aware of the fact that cigarettes will MAKE YOU DIE OMG DUH!!!, but the brute ignorance and selfishness of the corporations is what really gets my goat. And that was one of the targets, thankfully, of Bergman’s investigation and of this movie.
I think this movie may be most enjoyable for journalists, merely because it takes an insider (HAR HAR) look at the industry, which is slowly dying/being controlled by corporations/becoming irrelevant. CBS is a beast in this industry, indeed providing the best news show on network television, as mentioned in the film. But this film is also perfect for curious people. People who like to ask a lot of questions. People who know that you need to ask a lot of idiots before you get to the smart one. Watching this film improves your reporting skills, even if you didn’t have any before. It’s educational and you don’t even realize it until you’re through with it.
And it’s a nice movie to watch; I’m fairly certain that Ben Mackenzie (formerly of “The O.C.” and now of “Southland”) will age into a better-looking Russell Crowe, so that’s good for him. And Wigand’s children, played by Hallie Kate Eisenberg and Renee Olstead, are probably the cutest kids with ringlets since ol’ Shirley herself.
Naturally, as a critic, I have criticisms, but they are few. The music in this film rivaled that of a minimalist suspense film, which I guess may have been their intent, but still. Too eerie in some scenes, especially considering the subject matter. And how exactly did Bergman get his source, Wigand, so quickly? I realize that the movie was about the two of them working together, but it seemed like he spent about 5 minutes getting the name from someone. Granted, this is a movie, and it is Lowell Bergman, who has direct lines to every newspaper editor everywhere, but I wanted a little struggle. Just a little. It would have made me feel better, that’s all.
See this movie. It’s important.