On paper Michael Mann’s The Insider doesn’t sound like a Mann film. In fact, on paper it sounds like another ho-hum docudrama about an ethical everyman who fights the big bad corporation. However, The Insider – like Oliver Stone’s JFK and Robert Redford’s Quiz Show – is as taut as any thriller released in the 90’s. It’s a masterful procedural, and Mann and his screenwriter Eric Roth create tension and elicit edge-of-your-seat type scenes out of people talking, reading and investigating, and the fear of what could happen to someone. It’s one of Mann’s most unique films (
Immediately Mann lets us know what he plans on doing throughout the film as his main protagonist Lowell Bergmann (Al Pacino) sits in the backseat of a car blindfolded. Like Bergmann, the viewer is at a loss from the onset…this is certainly an odd way to open a film. This is what Mann wants, though, an opening that is essentially telling us that for the rest of the film we’re going to feel lost, as if we’re the ones blindfolded. It’s an interesting effect and upon re-watching the film made me think of the purposeful confusion of the 2006 geopolitical thriller, Syriana.
Ah, but this isn’t some “holier-than-thou” type of docudrama. Mann is too good for that, and throughout the film we see Bergmann and Wigand form a relationship, a friendship of sorts, yet it because clearer and clearer as the film progresses that Bergmann is just working this guy to get his story. Wigand immediately takes a liking to the fast talking Bergmann, who understands that Wigand has a story to tell, an important story he needs to tell the world. This recklessness and singular focus on doing the “60 Minutes” interview drives a wedge between Wigand and his family and pulls Wigand into a personal hell – a harsh reward for telling the truth. When his wife divorces him he first resorts to a hotel, specifically the room where he and Bergmann met for their first interview, and it is here that Mann creates the best moment of the film and one of the best visual moments he’s ever conjured up.
In this scene Wigand is watching TV and realizes that his original interview segment with Mike Wallace (the great Christopher Plummer in an outstanding performance) did not air. In lieu of the segment was a butchered version with Wallace explaining why they couldn’t show what they originally filmed for air, essentially blaming it on Wigand because of his personal life, which of course had been called into question thanks to Big Tobacco’s lawyers doing some typical mud slinging and character assassination. Bergmann fought for him and for the original segment, but was outranked by CBS higher-ups who were getting big time pressure from the lawyers about airing such a volatile story. According to Bergmann, his producer and Wallace too easily succumbed to CBS corporate, and instead of fighting for journalistic integrity, they opted to take the safe, sponsor-friendly route. Back to the scene: Wigand is sitting in his chair in the hotel room while Bergmann tries to reach him on the phone. As Bergmann relays a message for Wigand to the hotel manager who is outside of the locked hotel room, Mann decides to drown out the voices in the scene and crank the music. As this happens we simply look at Wigand and we think along with him about all that has happened to him throughout this process, all he has sacrificed. As we watch Wigand’s face (in a great bit of acting by Russell Crowe) the walls start to shift as Wigand looks their way. Soon the room morphs into a backyard where his kids are playing and his oldest daughter waves at him. It’s an emotionally shattering scene between contemplating what this man has gone through, the visual effect, and the music that Mann employs. It’s a brilliant scene filled with all kinds of gusto in otherwise subdued picture.
The film did have a rocky production as there were many people who would have liked for this film to have never been made. Bergmann, a friend of Mann’s, worked closely on the project and it is said that he made himself out to be the hero of the film. This doesn’t surprise me as with any docudrama you’re almost certainly getting a redacted version. Wallace was one the bigger names most displeased with the film because of how much of a megalomaniac it made him out to be. In the film he is portrayed vocalizing his displeasure with the edited version because they edited "the guts" of what he had to say as opposed them editing the guts out of the entire segment; apparently Wallace was just as vocal about his displeasure of the editing of the interview as Bergmann was.
Watching the film I think it becomes pretty obvious that it’s hard to believe Bergmann could have orchestrated everything he does in the film (setting up court hearings, leaking stories to the Wall Street Journal, fighting off network executives, etc.), but that’s what makes these films so intriguing: one guy against the world out to reveal a truth that some people don’t want told.
There's a crucial moment in the film when Wigand and Bergmann are eating dinner at a Japanese restraunt where Wigand states: "I'm just a commodity to you aren't I. It could be anything...anything to put on between commercials." Bergmann replies with a line that makes Wigand feel comfortable confiding in him and to "60 Minutes" when he says, "to a network maybe, but to me you're so much more important." I believe that Bergmann honestly felt this way, and to that extent he is the hero of the story, but I have my doubts that he was the singular reason why everything fell into place.
Does this make the film any less effective? Not at all. You come to expect these things from films of this ilk. I think what is portrayed in a more glorified manner is what's at the heart of investigative journalism: idealism. And the Bergmann of Mann's film is the prototypical symbol for the idealist, and in a dramatic film there's nothing wrong with taking some liberties in order to get that point across...it's not as if the Bergmann-friendly version of this story lessens its overall power, or makes it any less effective of a film.
The acting is top notch across the board. Crowe, relatively new here and fresh off his performance from 1997’s L.A. Confidential, is just fantastic as the on-edge Wigand. It’s the most internalized piece of acting that Crowe has ever done, and he does such a great job of always looking someone who won’t let the pressures that are causing the world around him to crumble get to him. It’s a shame that Crowe, who was nominated for Best Actor, was rewarded for his worst performance (Gladiator) a year after this, his best performance. I think it’s safe to say that this was probably the last time Pacino was ever any good. He’s not doing anything out of the ordinary here, but it’s just one of those classic Pacino performances before that became something you rolled your eyes at. Christopher Plummer, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, is great as the assured Wallace. There’s a great scene where he tells off a network executive without fear of reprisal, and it’s a scary rendition of what is probably a normal occurrence with these television patriarchs.
I’d also like to mention the great character actor Bruce McGill who has a bit role as a prosecutor who is trying to help Bergmann in getting Wigand’s story recorded by a court so that he won’t perjure himself by going on TV with the information he has. McGill has a film-stealing moment in a courtroom where he tells off a smug Big Tobacco attorney. He’s an underappreciated actor and really one of the best character actors working today.
I mentioned the look of the film earlier and how Mann and his cinematographer, the great Dante Spinotti, paint the film in blues and greens. What's also interesting about the look of the film is how Mann is more mobile with his camera in this picture, evoking that documentary feel he's aiming for. This is especially more noticeable when held up to his two previous films, Heat and The Last of the Mohicans. Both films were more sweeping and epic like in their photography, so it was bit jarring at first (and highly effective) when Mann introduces Wigand by shooting the scenes with his family in hand-held (there's an especially nice use of it in a scene where Wigand's daughter has an asthma attack...it's probably the most intense asthma attack I've seen in a movie). The Insider also seems to mark the first film where Mann flirted with the use of lighter, more mobile digital cameras, an aesthetic he has mastered with his recent onslaught of films.
As I mentioned earlier Mann’s film reminds me a lot of the intriguing and surprisingly intense procedural films like JFK or Quiz Show – films that are essentially people interviewing other people and talking about what they’ve read and investigated – but Mann’s film is so much more than those other pictures. I actually think it’s more akin to the brilliant David Fincher thriller Zodiac, another procedural film that had a lot of unanswered questions in it. In both films you have protagonists who are continually stunted in their efforts to get results from the evidence they have amassed throughout their arduous investigative journeys. You have a lot of scenes of people investigating, and it’s amazing that both films are able to pull you into their worlds and make you just as aggravated by the roadblocks, or just as intrigued by the next possible breakthrough, when really there aren’t any kind of conventional thriller tropes being employed by either filmmaker.
The Insider fits with Mann's other films only in the sense that we have two male characters that Mann is fascintated by; fascinated by what makes them tick and how and why they come to the decision to do what they do. We're never quite sure about Bergmann's history (he immediatly deflects Wigand's attempt at idle chit-chat about their fathers) or why Wigand feels so compelled to lose everything he loves in life in order to tell his story. And that stays consistant with Mann's recent approaches to narrative: intimately filming the subjects with handheld cameras, yet keeping you emotionally at arms length. This is what I love about all of Mann's films, there is nothing explicitly telling us (whether through lame dialogue or cheesy plot tactics) what motivates his characters. He allows us to look at their faces and contemplate and come to a decision ourselves. The Insider is all about the nuances, the way that Mann uses music to tell part of the narrative, the icy color palette he employs, the way he is able to speak through visuals that make you feel like you're a part of the investigation, and the way he creates tension out of nothing (seriously...I was riveted by a conversation via fax machine in this movie). The Insider is in the upper echelon of the auteur's oeuvre, and remains one of the best films of the 90's.