The problem for many filmmakers with real-life stories is that, while gripping to hear or read, they do not always make for terribly exciting cinema.
In telling the tale of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) – the man who 'blew the whistle' on the deceitful practices of the American tobacco industry in the '90s, with the help of a Sixty Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) – director Michael Mann (Manhunter, 1986) faces his material squarely.
This could so easily have been, in less inspired hands, a plodding, social issue telemovie. Most of the story is talk – in hotel rooms, restaurants, TV offices, and especially over telephones. Apart from a brief, stirring courtroom scene and glimpses of menacing figures possibly stalking Wigand, there is hardly any conventional screen action over almost two and a half hours.
Yet The Insider is a film in which words wound, people silently fall apart, and entire value systems are ruthlessly questioned. Mann and co-writer Eric Roth dig deeply into this story to find its tensest, most haunting and dramatic themes. And Mann's command of the expressive powers of cinema is completely thrilling.
From our first, economical glimpse of Wigand's fraught marriage, we sense that every attempt by this man to do good is only going to sink him deeper into trouble. Yet it is in Wigand's compulsion to confess – and his desperate desire for the world (especially his own children) to witness his public testimony – that some fragile hope for redemption and dignity reside.
For Bergman, on the other hand, the capacity to bring something positive and righteous into the world is hampered not by personal demons but institutional, political structures – the corporate sphere embodied by CBS television and its immediate masters, including the wily and venerable Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer). The film's balance and comparison of its two main characters and plot threads is magisterial.
At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I prefer Pacino's performance to Crowe's. Pacino, benefiting from his prior collaboration with the director, manages to be both relaxed and dynamic: the slightest alteration in his vocal inflection can tip a scene into high-gear drama or momentary comic relief. Bergman is a relatively one-dimensional part – he is a happy, even saintly guy – but Pacino's investment in the role is hypnotic.
The character of Wigand is, in all respects, the meatier, more complex part, driven by internal confusion and pain. It is also a brave one for a young star to take, since Wigand often registers as a surly, unlovely, repressed man. Crowe employs a battery of overly studied mannerisms to render Wigand: shifty gazes, clipped voice, twitchy muscles. Nonetheless, it is impossible not to become involved in Wigand's very personal and costly brand of heroism.
One prominent Australian reviewer, while insisting that The Insider is an important and impressive film, also saw fit to complain about its "awful" cinematography – especially the hand-held camera movement and tricky focus effects – as if the substance of a movie can somehow be separated from the images that comprise it.
This reviewer derided what he took as Mann's intention to mimic documentary realism. It would be hard to have a more misguided opinion about the astonishing style of The Insider. Mann is not now, and has never been, a realist. Every single frame of this movie is heightened and expressionistic, acutely keyed to the emotions of the story and its protagonists.
Far from evoking a spuriously objective viewpoint, Mann fashions his cinematic style from the inside out. Much of the film is subtly filtered through Wigand's necessarily paranoid consciousness – without recourse to the usual dream sequences or subjective viewpoint flashes. The use of the hand-held camera – always precise and effective, and by no measure inordinate – takes us right inside Wigand's edginess and his mounting sense of dread.
Mann and his superb cinematographer Dante Spinotti use light in a similarly expressive way. In early scenes, when Wigand is full of distrust and fear, he hides in shadows while Bergman moves freely in the light. When Wigand has his first taste of a new life – by humbly teaching chemistry in a high school – he is dazzlingly lit up.
Mann's work with sound is even more remarkable than his orchestration of images. Again, absolute un-realism is the rule: every object in the world of the film, from elevators and light globes to vacuum cleaners and cars, resonates with an eerie, enveloping tonality. What Mann and his sound team do with the familiar tick-tick-tick of the Sixty Minutes credits is breathtaking.
As always, Mann gives new life to the Hollywood convention of plastering pop tunes on the soundtrack. The Insider uses songs sparingly – all the better to prepare us for the plot's highpoint of intensity, a magnificent, wordless scene in which Wigand watches his lonely hotel room morph into a tableau of his children playing, beyond his reach.
The first time I saw Mann's previous film, Heat (1996), I was not overly impressed. After a second viewing, I realised I had seriously underrated its depth and brilliance. I have already seen The Insider twice – and still feel I am only at the start of the long adventure of exploring and appreciating it. It is an extraordinary, unforgettable achievement by one of America's very finest filmmakers.
© Adrian Martin January 2000