Following on from his sumptuous, critically acclaimed adaptation ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, Michael Mann’s epic 1995 drama ‘Heat’ cemented his position as one of America’s finest directors. A visceral, moody existential re-examination of the crime movie, it teamed him with Robert de Niro, Al Pacino and a who’s who of dynamic actors. It was a hard act to follow.
Four years later, re-teaming with Pacino – and harnessing the talents of a post-‘L.A. Confidential’, pre-global-stardom Russell Crowe – Mann didn’t just follow it. He surpassed it. ‘The Insider’, one of the most intelligent and precisely directed mainstream films of the ’90s, boasts the gripping, compelling narrative and powerhouse acting performances of its iconic predecessor, as well as the same slow-burn intensity played out across a two-and-a-half hour running time, but does so without recourse to heists, shoot-outs and chases.
‘Heat’ is cerebral, suspenseful and packs in a goodly number of shit-hot action scenes. ‘The Insider’ is quite simply cerebral. It’s about corporate power, freedom of speech, the strictures of the law, the necessity of conscience, the pull of family, and the integrity of the serious journalist vs the machinations of big business. And that’s just for starters. On a human level, it’s also about one man trying to keep his word and another man coming to a decision about the wrongdoings of his employer and the public’s right to know, even though the imperatives for keeping his mouth shut are very real and freighted with heavy consequences.
Big, dramatic stuff. Now factor in the factual basis of the story, and ‘The Insider’ really takes off. The starting point was Marie Brenner’s 1996 article for Vanity Fair, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’. A suitably Hitchcockian title for the story of an inside man, a corporate whistle-blower, a man whose family life disintegrates under the weight of potential financial desuetude, pervasive media scrutiny and death threats. Apposite, then, that it was expanded and adapted into a movie whose most tense scenes – an unspoken threat at a golf range, a piranha-like lawyer trying to silence a key witness even as he attempts to give a deposition – achieve a level of cinematic frisson that Hitch himself would have been proud of.
Brenner’s article focuses almost exclusively on former Brown & Williamson employee (that’s employee as in high-ranking senior management type on six-figures and a fuckload of benefits a year, as opposed to how the rest of us understand it) Jeffrey Wigand, and how he went public with information pertaining to the deliberate manipulation of tobacco products for maximum addiction potential. His story was featured on the influential and high-rating public affairs show ‘60 Minutes’, produced by Lowell Bergman for the CBS network.
Mann’s film expands on Brenner’s article and counterpoints Wigand’s struggle against the legal shenanigans of his former employers with Bergman’s internal stand-off against the corporate and legal departments of CBS who balk at the possibility of litigation from Brown & Williamson, particularly with a buy-out in the offing that would net big dividends for the top brass. It’s in a lot of people’s interest to keep Bergman’s section, if not off the screen entirely, then certainly edited and self-censored.
The screenplay – co-written by Mann and Eric Roth, whose then still-unproduced script ‘The Good Shepherd’ Mann had admired – finds a tense through-line and ties together what could easily have been discursive, digressive and rambling. It gives a high-quality cast – Pacino and Crowe are supported by Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Bruce McGill, Colm Feore, Gina Gershon, Stephen Toblowsky, Lindsay Crouse and Michael Gambon – the opportunity to engage in the dialogue equivalent of swordplay which intermittently erupts into some of the most verbally volcanic explosions this side of ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’.
Pacino’s performance recalls the glory days of the ’70s, when he appeared in one masterpiece after another. Crowe’s is quite simply the best work he’s done onscreen, more than confirming the promise inherent in ‘L.A. Confidential’. It’s a crying bloody shame that he went on to become so famous so quickly and has essentially not been called upon to deliver acting of this calibre since.
Mann’s direction, too, represents his highest professional achievement thus far. Subsequently, ‘Ali’ proved incredibly well-made but perhaps a shade too reverent; ‘Collateral’ fell foul of an occasionally clichéd script and a stilted performance from Tom Cruise, while ‘Miami Vice’ was an exercise in the visual potential of digital film-making which offered a jargon-heavy script and zero chemistry between its leads. (Having said all that, the forthcoming ‘Public Enemies’ with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale has got me authentically excited.)
‘The Insider’ is a gem … and that’s not a lapse into cliché. Like a gem, it’s multi-faceted. It reflects and refracts and dazzles. It provides essays on the quality of light. In terms of recent American films, I can only think of Alexander Payne’s ‘Sideways’ that infuses the screen with the quality of light so effectively. Mann conjures images that are haunting, sometimes surreal (the sequence of images that open the golf range sequence are astounding), and effortlessly poetic.
‘The Last of the Mohicans’ is more romantic and audience friendly, ‘Heat’ more exciting, and I have no doubt that ‘Public Enemies’ will positively ooze cool from its every frame. But ‘The Insider’ is peerless. I am convinced it is the film Michael Mann will be remembered for.