The Insider

dir. michael mann
st. russell crowe, al pacino

You can see it in the way Jeffrey Wigand walks. He's always expecting the worst, hunched over in immediate defeat. He isn't just paranoid now that he's finally squealed to the media. He's always been a little wary, run down, exhausted by the push towards comfort, a place he can see faintly, can sense in objects. His daughter is sick, and he wants her to be healthy, protected for the future, and somewhere in this future he can imagine he will be able to exhale, free to let out one breath and be done with it. For the moment he's suffering, but he will not let go. He won't be intimidated, so that's where The Insider sits for two and a half hours, in that knotted stomach, that paranoid fear.

Mann's directorial style here is a real leap from Heat. There everything was cool, spacious, dust-free, clinical. Here everything is a little more intense, heavy with sweat, with panic. Fundamentally, the picture operates around the idea of work, of duty. These people don't have time to design houses, to take long lunches. Heat was a study at a remove, an analysis of lives that couldn't afford to attract any connections. De Niro had to be able to drop it all in thirty seconds, to immediately transform into that lone man that American cinema "created" in the western, and so Mann was still basically operating within a genre with Heat. The technology and architecture was late 20th century, yet the themes were almost turn of the century, hell, let's say mythical. There's none of that boyish obsession in The Insider. Everything here is grounded in family and responsibility. Heat was ostensibly about responsibility, but using bank robbery as your grand metaphor for the human condition was giving realism a low cut of the haul. The Insider is the flip-side of Heat, with no shoot-outs to bring the picture to a close.

That's what lies at the heart of this film, responsibility. Pacino is an ex-leftist with pictures of Che Guevara and Allen Ginsberg on his office wall, yet he works for the good and grey 60 Minutes. When Wigand challenges his ethics, Pacino shifts into defensive mode instantly. He's had that response planned for a long time. He rehearses it every night before he goes to sleep. Wigand too is a lost man, a supposedly pure "man of science" who nonetheless left a job for more money so his family would be happy, so he would be secure, yet it's clear immediately that Wigand is not happy, and that this plan has turned bitter along the way. He was sure this would work, but one decision has changed all that, and now one more decision has to be made. He can run and disappear or he can stay and atone for his "sins". I know, this sounds a little pompous and over-reaching, but Crowe makes it work. His struggle isn't self-conscious in an Oscar night way, where every twist of the plot forces the actors into a Shatneresque realm of hammy self-consciousness. Wigand has a sense of right that he wants to regain, and sees that this is his chance.

Every detail is exact, decor, accents, dialogue. Mann can be called a film technician, a finicky, specific director who digs exactness and perfect detail, but to lump him in with the rest of those anal retentive assholes does him no justice whatsoever. Kubrick for example, to run over a familiar theme ... obsessed with minor details to such an extent that he let supporting characters performances that destroyed the film. Kubrick was ass-backwards, a despot with a larger vision made wholly of trifles. Mann is different. The small details don t become the film, diversions, but add to the picture, to Crowe.

Mann's painterly style...he's an expert at the large and imposing scene, infinitely suggestive, heavy with meaning. The golf course at night, swatting balls in a test of power, of aim, a dull glow of light that works it way into every pore on Jeffrey's haggard face. It's a culturally acceptable boozehole alternative for burnt out executives, sheer energy worked out on a corporate hobby. It's an unsettling scene, but this is nothing new to Mann. He has always been a master of space, of "directing architecture" as John Wrathall once put it in Sight and Sound. It can be a ponderous style at times, but it's so effective that you wish more films would try for this woozy grandeur. Even when Jeffrey heads to New York, one of the busiest cities in the world, he seems alone, separate from the rest of the people. There's always a few metres between him and everyone else, a fact that he finds both comforting and alienating. This beautifully expresses his feelings about his family - a mixture of closeness and space. Is he is ever comfortable, relaxed, happy in that fleeting moment? Only once, in a quasi-dream sequence, does Jeffrey let happiness wash over him, but it's a flashback, an impossibility that the present moment will never fulfill. All he can measure now is what he's lost, surrendered, been denied. That's the only way for an insider to gauge his life.

All the supporting cast are wonderful, each character exacting in their role, yet it all comes down to Pacino and Crowe, and they make the film. Forget the insta-classic show-down between De Niro and Pacino in Heat. This is real acting, real interaction. I'm not even sure if Pacino has been acting in the last few years. He's become a real camp treat, comic and overbearing, the whole ship sinking under the weight of a histrionic captain.

Then there's Crowe ... an immaculate performance, right down to his muted Southern accent and girth. Most actors either lose or gain weight as an excuse to showboat, letting the absence or addition of weight override their brain, letting it become a reason not to act. They let their stomach do the talking, and seem exhausted when asked to give a performance (Stallone's Copland bloating is a good example of this). In comparison, Crowe moves his weight with familiarity, as if he adds a little every day. He wakes, checks the scales and then trods off to work. Everything about his performance is lived-in, ultra realistic. The pain in his realisation that he and his wife are drifting apart. He is not a comically puffed up kewpie doll, a sweating Oscar night grotesque. The love he has for his children, the details and honesty of the family scenes, the way they move through the house, the unwritten body language, the accepted gestures.

Families ... Mann is incredibly interested in families, in how individual figures (always the centre of his films) operate in a larger family. Family in this sense doesn t necessarily mean biological, but the families that develop at work, whether through choice or by necessity. The gun battles in Heat distracted people from the fact that Mann is intently focused on human beings. Cops that seem to have no life secretly cherish the occasional moment of camaraderie at the office. The way Jeffrey eases into his job at the high school, regaining what he lost for so many years, the connection he can feel building between himself and the students. The way marriages often feel like afterthoughts, things attended to out of the office, people passing each other on the downward slide, too busy with other things.

I think Mann has finally shed that last skin, that element of his film-making that lead a friend of mine to consider everything he ever made as a glorified episode of Miami Vice. So forget Don Johnson, as tough as that s going to be. The Insider is as close to a masterpiece as Mann has made yet, with one of the best performances of the decade.

Adam Rivett
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