Friday, March 08, 2013

The Insider (1999)

USA, 157 minutes
Director: Michael Mann
Writers: Marie Brenner, Eric Roth, Michael Mann
Photography: Dante Spinotti
Music: Pieter Bourke, Lisa Gerrard
Editors: William Goldenberg, David Rosenbloom, Paul Rubell
Cast: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar, Stephen Tobolowsky, Colm Feore, Bruce McGill, Gina Gershon, Michael Gambon, Rip Torn, Wings Hauser, Nestor Serrano

At some point I think I might have to face up to a certain middlebrow orientation. With movies, my focus tends to be on narrative. Imagery, music, performance, and all the trappings are fine and good, but I tend to start with certain demands of a story—organization, clarity, and purpose at the very least; stakes I can connect with and tension with that would be nice too. Most problematically, particularly in these fictional ripped-from-the-headlines exercises "based on reality" and/or the message picture bald, I further expect that it comport with my own sense of reality and values. When it doesn't, I start to have problems. I think, in fact, this may stand in as a reasonably good definition of the middlebrow.

I say this by way of introduction to my favorite picture by director Michael Mann, which is so comically right on target in its messaginess—who, even in 1999, was left to defend the enormity of Big Tobacco?—that I can even laugh at it myself. Michael Mann likes to do things big and he's very good at it. He's also an aesthete, practically an abstract artist in the way he uses the big-screen canvas to paint glossy photorealist portraits of cityscapes, cars, long freeway lanes, beautiful women, and powerful men. It occurred to me when I was revisiting The Insider recently that it is also the only Mann I have seen on the big screen. It could be that's the reason it's my favorite. But there are actually many reasons to like The Insider.

It is filled with money and swagger, which is so seductive. Mann takes outrageous advantage of the opportunities afforded by having 60 Minutes as a central part of the story, among other things opening the two-and-a-half-hour movie on an exotic and mysterious encounter with a powerful figure in Iran, a viscerally rendered side trip that introduces us to CBS News producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), the first of not one but two gutsy larger-than-life hee-rows who will come to occupy center stage. Even though nothing in this movie has a thing to do with the Middle East, parts of these scenes were filmed on location in Israel. Thus it is a wild ride from the beginning.

The cast is all-star, yes, that's right, we've got another prestige production on our hands, standing up poised veteran Al Pacino next to the ascendant Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco industry insider of the title, whose admirably stammering, raging Gallant ultimately vanquishes various malevolent Goofuses right before our eyes. And it is so satisfying. Pacino struts around as the self-righteous and ultra-cool gonzo journalist, but Crowe maybe has the much tougher role, as an almost spastic boy scout wrestling with monsters inside and all around him—a man alone, utterly alone, thrust into wracking moral turmoil. Among other things, Crowe proves how good he is at being tightly wound.

So that sets up the basic operatics of a story that saws back and forth and all around the wheels of power and justice. Wigand wants to get the truth out about the tobacco industry, Bergman wants to get it on 60 Minutes, Big Tobacco and its armies of lawyers will stop at nothing to stop them. Meanwhile, my last time through The Insider, Christopher Plummer is making the most of an extremely sharp-elbowed portrait of legendary CBS reporter Mike Wallace in the screenplay, and virtually stealing the show. He is devastating as a pompous self-important buffoon and hypocrite focused narcissistically on his own legacy and little else. It is so hard on Wallace one almost feels sorry for him secondhand—but it is also delicious in execution and not to be missed.

The Insider is kinetic from start to finish, excesses and all. Yes, too much time in Iran, and please, stop it now with the Unabomber thread, but it is always moving forward, advancing its story, finding surprising ways to please and disturb and resolve. It is done the way Mann usually does things, probing, tentative, allusive, just showing immaculately constructed scenes consecutively. The images and the dialogue are dense and studded with important detail, but it's frequently hard to know where to focus, one is always set back just a little on one's heels, trying to keep up.

My favorite scene this time through—or image, really—is also faintly ridiculous. It is when Wigand is returning to his home in Louisville from his deposition in Mississippi, one more tense skirmish in what has become his personal war with Big Tobacco. It is nighttime and he is riding in the backseat of a car from the airport, with his security detail of three men. He is happy and satisfied he has been able to give the testimony, but he doesn't know yet that even more and worse problems are still ahead. The silent car with the four men takes a freeway exit and we see a car fully engulfed in flames, in the field just off the roadway shoulder. No one is attending to it. It is just burning away. No explanation is given. No one in the car says anything or even noticeably reacts to it.

It is a stunningly beautiful moment in a movie full of them. At its best it is swollen up big and round, full of the menace, portent, surfaces, and textures of modern life. These days I find I prefer my megalomaniacal evil geniuses in the movies to be wizards of the corporate world rather than the government figures that populate other movies—more realistic, in our present circumstances, for one thing. But The Insider plays well to many of Michael Mann's greatest strengths. I can't think of anyone else who could turn hitting a bucket of balls at a nighttime suburban driving range into a moment of such high swooning fever. And really, does anyone else do men in crisp suits quite as ominously intimidating as Mann?

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