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The Insider (1999)
Michael Mann does it again!
I have been a huge Michael Mann fan for years, but I do have to admit that I approached his latest film "The Insider" with just the teensiest bit of trepidation...after all, Mann is the godfather of the thinking man's action flick, and I've even heard it said that his action sequences are so integral to his movie that they are practically another character in the film...with which I completely agree. So I was wondering how a movie with no chase sequence, no gunfights, basically no action whatsoever--well, how could that possibly qualify as an authentic Michael Mann signature film?
Yes, the action, per se, is missing, but Mann still brings his signature directorial style to life with lots of wide shots, intense close ups, and indirect focus, all bathed in cool blue light and threaded together with an inventive soundtrack (including a reprise of a former track that was used so effectively in "HEAT"; sorry, I can't recall the title offhand).
And what the movie lacks in "action", Mann more than makes up for in high-wire tension. He pulls us into the drama of an ordinary man's life by portraying the myriad humiliations, both large and small, that assault Wigand from the moment he is fired from his job as an R&D VP for a major tobacco company. The detoriation of his life, from his finances to his marriage to his belief in himself, is explored with the sort of atmospheric detail that is Mann's trademark: the play of light or lack of it; the familiar sights and sounds of everyday life, from the patterns of rain on a windshield to the rush of wind through the trees; and camera work that ranges from tight, out-of-focus shots to sweeping panoramas of razor-sharp clarity...all of this creates an environment of realism that puts you into the film. You can't just observe Wigand's struggle; you experience it with him. My movie-watching partner observed as we left the theatre that he felt exhausted from the tension, as if he'd just been through the corporate wringer himself. I knew what he meant!
But atmosphere isn't all Mann delivers. Once again, this genius director has placed an unexpected actor in the lead role of his film, with amazing results. Before Daniel Day Lewis was "Nathaniel Poe" in "The Last of The Mohicans", no one would have believed he could pull off a major hunk-o-rama role...well, guess what? He ended up defining the hero of the adventure/romance genre! In "The Insider", Mann has opted for the opposite effect, casting young, potential hunk material Russell Crowe as an older, slightly-pot-bellied father of two. Wigand doesn't look like anyone's hero, and perhaps that's actually the message of the movie: an ordinary man--a nobody, really--caught up in extraordinary circumstances. And Crowe delivers...in a major way! Personally, I can't remember an acting performance that mesmerized me to this extent...unless it was the last time I watched Crowe, in "L.A. Confidential". He evokes his character in this movie with the apparent ease of a magician doing card tricks: the illusion is complete and appears to be effortless. Even with silver, receding hair and twenty extra pounds which, we are shown, is not the result of costume padding, but Crowe's own amplified flesh, he is imminently watchable... almost hypnotically so.
There are, even as I post this, whispers and rumors about this movie being an Oscar contender. Best director, best actor, best supporting actor. Again, I can only nod my head in complete and total agreement. Russell Crowe will blow you away, and Al Pacino gives his best performance in years.
This film is quiet, intense, and ultimately, extremely moving. I literally burst into tears twice, the way you do when you've recieved bad news or seen something dreadful, so complete was my empathy for the character of Jeffrey Wigand . The anger, helplessness, and puzzled confusion at being punished for telling the truth felt all too familiar to me.
In summary, I was not at all disappointed in Mann's direction of this film. Even without the phenomenal action sequences he's known for, this film had the same visceral effect on me that I experienced when I saw Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, and HEAT. I'm a born-again fan!