Michael Mann’s The Insider: A Review by Nate Hill

There are some films that are so perfectly made in every way possible that
I sit there thinking ‘Every persons effort and every element of creative energy that went into making this movie has been implemented flawlessly, arriving here and now to give me the viewing experience I’m getting. A perfect movie’. Michael Mann’s The Insider is such a movie. I held off on reviewing it for a couple days after seeing it, partly to let it sink in but mostly to see if I’d feel any different about it once my synapses had cooled down and the frames had dimmed from my consciousness. Perhaps the fiery reaction it drew from me in the moment was cheaply earned, or I was just in the right mood to love it at that time. Not a chance. If anything I’ve become more enraptured by it as time has passed, already aching for a second viewing. Every performance and aspect of is just so rich, deep and rewarding that for its two and a half hour runtime I found myself externally distracted not once. Occasionally Mann deviates from his comfort zone in the nocturnal crime zone. The occult themed period piece, the colonial adventure, the psychological horror, and this, the blistering drama based on a true story. One might not think the subject matter deserves a two and a half hour film, let alone would make a great one, but Mann has the cinematic Midas touch, and never half asses it. His films always contain traces of a true master at work, telling little details that engrave the film with a sense of immaculate skill and unwavering dedication to telling the story in its finest, and most honest form. The Insider tells the story of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a chemist who turns whistleblower on the tobacco corporation he was once employed by, finding shelter under the wing of CBS News’s 60 minutes, and particularly hard nosed reporter Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). The network wants his take, in order to do an exposé on Big Tobacco, a plan with predictably disastrous and dangerous results, for both Wigand and CBS. The film shakes off any impending sensationalism or deliberately emotional stylistic cheats, instead keeping a microscope focus on the three lead performances and letting all the hurt, determination and emotion come forth naturally through their work, as opposed to smothering their story with an overbearing score and cheap cinematic manipulation. I’ve never been that won over by Russell Crowe until now. He always seems ‘halfway there’ in his work, like he’s missing something. This changed things for me. He’s like a raw nerve here, a family man pushed to the precipice of an impossible decision. One can almost see him wrestling with his conscience behind those haunted eyes, a storm with a lid barely kept on and anchored by Crowe in his finest hour. Pacino holds us captive with his work until we realize we’re not breathing. He’s the moral compass of the piece, and to see him explode at the injustices served up to him will give you goosebumps. The third leg of the table is Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace, the 60 minutes anchor who also struggles morally with the situation they are in. Plummer is so good you forget you’re watching a film, giving Wallace buried gentleness and chiselled emotional intensity that you can scarce believe is even possible through the craft of acting. The supporting cast is peppered with bushels of talent. Colm Feore, Philip Baker Hall, Gina Gershon, Stephen Tobolowsky, Diane Venora, Nester Serrano, Rip Torn, Michael Gambon and an unusually sedated Debi Mazar are superb. It’s Bruce McGill, however, who almost steals the film in one blistering scene, playing a lawyer with enough righteous anger to shatter your tv screen. A career best for him. No one puts you into a story by forcing you to feel alongside the characters quite like Mann. Here he guides us through the trials that Crowe, Plummer and Pacino face with steady hand and heart until we are invested. Then he pulls the ripcord and let’s the sparks fly, making monumentally intense work of events that could seem pedestrian in lesser hands. We really feel for Crowe and clutch the seat with the same desperate intensity that he clings to his family, and sanity. We feel the same jilted fury alongside Pacino as he wades through sickening bureaucracy for a shot at retribution. We take pause with Plummer as he ponders his legacy and are incredulous with all three at the snowball effect the entire proceeding has had on them, devastating us as an audience the same as them, in turn making us feel closer to them. This is all laced with the incredibly heartfelt music from Lisa Gerrard, who sang alongside Crowe in Gladiator and was a favourite of Tony Scott as well. Mann is a ceaseless monster of storytelling, tone and pacing. The story has flair simply because he doesn’t wantonly throw it in the mix; the feeling and reaction come from story and character and not the razzle dazzle. Mann knows this, and let’s the fireworks naturally spring from the absence of deliberation, like music in the vacuum of space. This one will live on to stand the test of time far longer than the decade and a half its help for already. It’s a revelation. 

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