10. the insider (Michael Mann, 1999)
Following the widely acclaimed Heat (1995) Michael Mann (below), who had started out directing television commercials and documentary films in the 1960s and famously co-created the TV series Miami Vice, produced a riveting masterpiece of conspiracy cinema to rank alongside All The President's Men and The Parallax View.
Where The Insider differs from these benchmarks of the genre is in its ambition to bring to the fore the human aspects of the story, ranking them alongside and even at times above the conspiracy. Insodoing, Mann suscitates a different kind of anger in the viewer, based less upon the enormity or shock value of the conspiracy itself, more upon the struggles of the protagonists to cope with the circumstances thrown up by the conspiracy and the consequent effects on their lives.
Each of the two protagonists has their own enemy in this conspiracy, on the one hand the tobacco firm Brown & Williamson; on the other, the corporate arm of the television network, CBS. The victims are their employees, whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), whose confidentiality agreement with Brown & Williamson prevents him from divulging highly damaging information about the tobacco industry and the CBS news journalist Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who first stumbles upon the story but finds himself cut loose by the network when the threat of massive litigation suppresses the airing of the Wigand interview. This pair are thrust together, suffer together, but interestingly spend the majority of the film alone. While their paths might cross, their worlds are miles apart.
Based loosely on a true story, The Insider is largely shot in a documentary style evoking the film's principal subject, the American current affairs show 60 Minutes. But to underscore the dual approach Mann is taking to the story, cinematographer Dante Spinotti combines the hard close-ups and hand-held movements of the news camera with an overall stillness and beauty more akin to a Terence Malick or a Polanski. The camera lingers on the characters a fraction longer than normal, without explanation or dialogue; the outdoor shots are nearly always atmospheric - night, wind, rain, dusk.
The overall feel heightens the sense of the characters' isolation and their need to grapple against the turbulence of the events that unfold. Some of the interiors are no less striking, such as the blue strip-light-effect filters of a Mississippi courtroom scene where Wigand gives a deposition and in numerous hotels where daylight pours into the lobby while Wigand and Bergman hide in the shadows. Like all Mann films the "look" remains with the viewer long after the house lights have come up.
Similarly, the score by Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard is completely at odds with one's expectations of the genre. Not once do we hear a pounding suspense sequence or a climactic symphonic explosion, instead a slow, very deliberate fusion of synthesiser, plucked guitar and captivating Arabic chant that creeps up on you until those moments of reflection or emotion where it overtakes the dialogue track and comes to the fore, as when someone's inner thoughts cause them to blank out the surrounding hubbub.
On repeat viewing what is perhaps most striking about the film is the brilliance of the casting and actors. Christopher Plummer gives a magisterial supporting turn as veteran broadcaster Mike ("my conscience is clear") Wallace and Diane Venora's is a painfully honest performance as Wigand's wife.
There are eccentric choices (Pacino's Serpico co-star Colm Feore as a jet-flying Mississippi DA and world-famous smoker Michael Gambon as Wigand's nemesis, Brown & Williamson head honcho Michael Sandefur) and some frankly bizarre ones (casting Gina Gershon as a CBS in-house lawyer and veteran direct-to-video 80s action star Wings Hauser as one of Brown & Williamson's legal defence team) but every performance is a perfect, inextricable part of the whole, driven by a script and a director in total control of the material.
It hardly needs saying that Pacino is magnificent, in his element here as much as he was ill at ease in Heat, whilst Crowe's work in the film's hardest role, which also features a physical transformation, has never been bettered by him since.
The Insider radiates confidence and class, satisfyingly laying bare the extent of the venality and duplicity of "Big Tobacco" for all to see. But it never forgets to show us the human cost of divulging the truth. In that closing scene where Wigand's estranged young daughter turns expressionless towards her father as his face appears on television, it offers perhaps the most heart-breaking moment of 90s Cinema as well.
For more information about the true story that inspired The Insider go to Frontline's web-page "Smoke In The Eye"
The Insider 157 minutes Director Michael Mann Writer Eric Roth Actors Al Pacino Russell Crowe Christopher Plummer Diane Venora Philip Baker Hall Rip Torn Colm Feore Gina Gershon Photography Dante Spinotti Score Pieter Bourke & Lisa Gerrard
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