Thursday, December 17, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Top Ten Films of the Year, #5 --- The Insider (Michael Mann)

When I began thinking about this project last Spring I remember thinking that whenever (and if) I get to the top five films of 1999 I will have a tough time figuring out which films are “better” than the others.  When thinking about this hierarchical dilemma I began to realize that I would have to type out some kind of caveat with this list. Here is the first of five entries that will account for what I think are the five best films of 1999, a year that I have been talking about on this blog for a while now.  It doesn’t matter what number sits next to these films, they’re all interchangeable at this point, but what is important is that these are five of the best films of the 90’s.  Here’s where I’ve covered so far in case you've forgotten:

The Top 10 Films of 1999:

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 (there are no Mann character types in the film Actually there are, just not in the sense that they're professional criminals or gangsters.  Thanks to J.D. for pointing this out to me in the comment section) because on the surface it just seems so normal with its big star (Al Pacino) and Oscar premise (it was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and others, and remains one of the most criminally snubbed films in recent Oscar history).  The Insider is also one of Mann’s best films.  It shows a director who is a master visual storyteller; a director who is able to make 150+ minutes feel like 90; a director who creates one of the most intriguing “based on a true story” type investigative film since All the President’s Men.

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

The story of Bergmann, a “60 Minutes” producer, and whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a laid-off employee of one of the biggest tobacco companies, trying to take down the tobacco industry seems pretty banal; however, Mann and Roth punch up the story by showing us the inner workings of Bergmann’s TV producer and what it takes to produce a weekly magazine news show the caliber of “60 Minutes”.  Mann’s style, as usual, trumps the writing as he paints his film in blue’s and green’s to great effect showing us the icy world of television.  On the flip side you have Crowe’s Wigand who is trying his hardest to keep his family together after his firing from a tobacco company for making his voice heard in a situation where he was expected to stay quiet and toe the company line.  Once he receives threats, presumably from the tobacco company he used to work for, he feels compelled to meet with Bergmann and tell his side of the story. 

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 original story did eventually air on “60 Minutes”, but by that time it was almost an afterthought.  What’s interesting about the film is the way that Bergmann comes off smelling like roses, the man of integrity who didn’t bow to corporate pressure; all the while Wallace and some of the “60 Minutes” producers come off looking weak, pawns that are easily manipulated by CBS corporate.  Wigand just kind of goes on with his life, coming to terms with the fact that even though his interview wasn’t the big deal he was hoping it to be, at least he can take comfort in knowing that he was the catalyst that set things in motion in regards to Big Tobacco becoming more scrutinized. 

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'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'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.

Extra Stills:


  1. I'm not as crazy as you are about this film, but it's a good one. And the performances, as they always are in Mann's work, are fantastic across the board. I'm especially glad you picked out the work of Bruce McGill, who is great here in a small part. He appeared in a few Mann films in small peripheral roles like this and he always invests these minor characters with a lot of surprising substance.

  2. I liked this particular film Kevin the first time in the theatre, but somehow it has lost something after re-viewings. Sure Crowe, Plummer et al give exceptional performances, and the film still packs an enormous wallop in places, but it's a talky, sometimes tedious view that seems at times to present it's case with a sledge hammer. Still, it's a far better film than his recent PUBLIC ENEMIES, a film that never probes deeper than surface-level. You have again reviewed a film exhaustively and with great passion, a winning combination!

  3. This definitely seems to be one of the most divisive films he's made. I've found that most people that like Mann almost always like Heat, Manhunter, and Thief. But this one seems a little less popular.

    But for me, after Heat, The Insider is my favorite Mann film. Not only does the emotional trajectory work for me. But I find it formally to be one of the most audacious and accomplished films of the 90s.

    I see it as the beginning of a new chapter for Mann, the start of his departure into a more abstract approach (I'm thinking of the scene with Crowe at the driving range). This direction we see him continue (albeit to a less successful end) with Ali and all its editing, color, lens, and film stock experimentation.

    It's my hope that people will continue to study and look at Mann. And that this film, in particular, will continue to grow in stature.

  4. Ed:

    Glad to hear you're also a fan of Bruce McGill. I liken him to a J.T. Walsh caliber character actor...meaning I'm almost always happy to see him pop up in a movie.

  5. Sam:

    We're definitely coming at this from different angles. Subsequent viewings have only enriched this film experience for me. I also liked Public Enemies a lot more than you...but I'm more than cognizant of the fact that Mann's narrative style isn't to everyones liking.

  6. Jeffrey:

    Thanks for the comment! I agree with you about the importance of Mann and how this film marked the beginning of a new chapter for him. I think he and Terrence Malick are two of the most important American filmmakers working today. I'm curious, if Heat and The Insider are your favorite Mann film, what's your take on his recent films where he's experimenting a lot with HD cameras (specifically Collateral, Miami Vice, and Public Enemies? I'd be curious to hear your opinion on those.

  7. Good question.

    I must say I do struggle a little with the post-Insider work. I know that Public Enemies marks the first time he and Spinotti worked together again since The Insider. I am a film guy (I just prefer the softness of it to HD) and think the Mann-Spinotti collaboration is one of the best we have right now in world cinema so it does sadden me a little to see Mann go in the direction he has. I totally understand when lower-budget films use HD, but I still don't fully understand when a reportedly $100M movie (Public Enemies) makes that choice.

    I read once where the director James Gray said in an interview that if film was invented tomorrow, everyone would rave about it. He went on to say, usually when people get excited about technological advances, it's because they mark an improvement. But the point he was making is that it's odd that people get so excited about HD since it's actually still "inferior" to film. This is debatable, obviously. But I feel the same way as James Gray.

    I think I've heard that both Mann and David Lynch never want to use film again. I truly hope that's not the case. For me, neither has proven yet that their amazing visual contributions have the same impact on HD.

  8. Great pick, Kevin! This is, hands down, my fave Mann film and fave film the 1990s. The reason being is that I feel it's his most complete film where all of this thematic preoccupations dovetail perfectly with his style with just the right material.

    I do have to respectfully disagree with one point you make: "there are no Mann character types in the film"." Not true. Bergman and Wigand are actually two quintessential Mann protagonists. Both are professionals at the top of their game (we learn both of their impressive credentials at certain points in the film). For example, Bergman's introduction, trying to get Sheik Fadlallah to consent to an interview with Mike Wallace establishes the no-nonsense tone of the movie and the professionalism of Pacino's character. He is willing to go, literally, blind into a potentially dangerous situation to get what he wants. He is a consummate professional who knows how to handle things: the quintessential Mann protagonist.

    As for Wigand, like many Mann protagonists, he internalizes everything (see Frank in THIEF, McCauley in HEAT). The relationship with his wife is very similar to the one between Graham and Molly in MANHUNTER. He too internalizes everything while she shows her emotions. And like many Mann protagonists, Wigand is forced to choose between his own code of ethics, of what he thinks is right, and the harmony of his family. Protags in THIEF and MANHUNTER both have this conflict also.

    Anyways, I'm rambling. Enjoyed the hell out of your post and couldn't agree more about the film's merits.

  9. Jeffrey:

    That's an interesting quote from Gray, a filmmaker I really like (especially his wonderful Two Lovers). I too find it interesting that Lynch and Mann never want to work with film again, but perhaps that just means they like the way HD cameras can tell the kind of stories they want to tell. I agree with you about film, but I also think that the HD stuff works in some movies, and Public Enemies was one of those movies. I think Mann was going for a different kind of aesthetic than the usual gangster film, and I have to say that his HD stuff was a lot more interesting in 2009 than if he had filmed it in a sepia tone or filmed it like a sweeping gangster epic. The in-the-moment feel that those cameras gave that film matched the philosophy and the life of Dillinger, and I found that to be a pretty fascinating artistic decision. Ballsy too.

    BUT, I agree...I still prefer film. I just think that Mann has become a master a shooting digitally. I wonder how Spinotti felt about shooting in HD.

    Thanks again for the comment, Jeffrey.

  10. J.D.:

    You're right about the character types...I should change that. I think because I wrote this so hastily that I was thinking strictly in terms of "these characters aren't gangsters or professional criminals." So in that regard they are different than past Mann characters. But the character types are on par with Mann does, and I think I mention that at the end of my I probably contradicted myself there, hehe. Thanks for pointing this out though. You're quite right about how Bergmann is at the top of his field, and you're right about how Wigand internalizes everything.

    Thanks for the comment and I knew you were a big fan of this film. Always nice to have the Michael Mann expert pay a visit when I talk about his films! Thanks, J.D.

  11. Kevin:

    That all makes sense. I particularly like "I have to say his HD stuff was lot more interesting in 2009 than if he had filmed it in a sepia tone or filmed it like a sweeping gangster epic." It's a good point and certainly makes me second-guess myself on whether it was actually the best way for him to modernize the material.

    Always great to hear your perspective. Thanks, Kevin.

  12. The Insider might be my pick for no. 1 of 99. The big contender, Magnolia, always struck me as too technically cold in its approach to melodrama that it just completely did not work for me (having since caught up with his filmography, though, I need to revisit it). The Insider is such a masterful thriller; the sound of a phone ringing has been used for dramatic effect since just about the start of the talkies, but Mann absolutely terrifed me a times. The only contemporary film that comes close to achieving its ability to make the characters' paranoia our own is Fincher's Zodiac

  13. Jeffrey:

    Thanks for the reply. I hope you drop by here with some comments more often. Have a great holiday!

  14. Jake:

    We're in agreement here about the effectiveness of Mann's tactics. I mention Zodiac at the end of my review and I'm glad to see that somebody else sees the correlation between the two. There's also a lot of similarities between Mann's film and Pakula's All the Presidents Men. I love what you say about the film's ability to elicit paranoia so well.

    Thanks for the comment, Jake.

  15. This is a really excellent film and your review does it justice. I'm glad to see the praise for Bruce McGill who really steals his handful of scenes.