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Movie Review: The Galvanizing Effect of Docudrama and THE INSIDER on Michael Mann

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What makes 1999’s The Insider somewhat of an anomaly for director Michael Mann isn’t that it operates firmly inside the docudrama genre.  Many of Mann’s movies have looked to real life for inspiration, from Ali to Public Enemies; even Heat grew out of conversations Mann had with Chicago police officer Chuck Adamson about a case that saw Adamson squaring off against a wily career criminal.

No, what makes this particular docudrama so special is that it’s the one film in Mann’s career that doesn’t examine the director’s favorite subject: how trained professionals react to violence.  There are no thrilling shootouts here, no races against time to kill a worthy adversary.  The stakes are more human-scaled and far more important, with Mann recounting how two men took a stand against the cigarette industry.  His heroes: Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a scientist for Brown & Williamson who decides to go public with some very scary news about cigarettes and nicotine addiction, and Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), the former “60 Minutes” producer who championed Wigand and fought to get his story on the air.  Working against them: practically everyone else, from Big Tobacco’s shark-skin legal counsels to scores of CBS executives worrying about the ramifications of an offensive strike on Big Tobacco.

The Insider charts Wigand and Bergman’s agonizing attempts to give the public the truth, and though the film moves with the pulse-pounding intensity of a spy thriller, Mann never resorts to violence or bloodshed; the closest The Insider gets to intimating physical violence occurs when Wigand receives a bullet in his mailbox from Brown & Williamson’s hired thugs, and Mann even suggests that Wigand may have put the bullet there himself in order to marshal support for his cause.  These characters spar with words, with legalese, and for those viewers raised on Heat‘s virtuoso robbery sequence or on Manhunter‘s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”-scored shootout, The Insider‘s far less sanguine environment could prove surprising.

Surprising, and rare.  It took Mann twelve years to deviate from this milieu again; his 2011 television series “Luck” was an uncommonly flavorful and generous look at the lives of those in and around a California horse racing track, though even “Luck” (which also featured The Insider‘s Michael Gambon) devoted considerable attention to the inner – and often bloody – workings of the criminal mindset.

Ultimately, it’s a commitment to character that helps The Insider fit within Mann’s oeuvre, despite the fact that it doesn’t traffic in cops-and-criminals tropes.  Even when pursuing the truth, its protagonists don’t define themselves in black and white constructs.  Bergman might first appear a paragon of journalistic integrity, but he’s also not above misleading a source or retreating when the chips are down – a late-act scene shows him bowing out to some tropical paradise after it appears unlikely that Wigand’s interview will ever make it on the air.  Wigand, too, is no saint, and one of the beauties of Crowe’s towering, multifaceted performance is that the more time we spend with him, the more we begin to question his intentions behind blowing the whistle on Brown & Williamson.

Even television icon Mike Wallace (the great Christopher Plummer, in a role that should have netted him a Best Supporting Actor nomination), who we first meet giving the third-degree to Hezbollah founder Sheikh Fadlallah, isn’t above kowtowing to corporate pressure when CBS informs Wallace that airing the interview could cost him his job.  Unlike, say, All the President’s Men or Billy Ray’s underrated journalism drama Shattered Glass, The Insider doesn’t believe in moral exemplars.  There are just decisions, and those decisions have very personal consequences, a process that Mann renders with all the suspense of his celebrated crime thrillers.

The Insider is a long movie, and like most of Mann’s work, it revels in the moments of methodical process that most films would elide; for Mann, it isn’t good enough to skate through the big wins and losses.  He has to map out every trial, corporate sit-down, and document search along the way.  It’s to his credit – and to William Goldenberg & Paul Rubell’s crisp editing; Pieter Bourke & Lisa Gerrard’s atmospheric score; and Dante Spinotti’s fluid camerawork, which gives The Insider a sleek, hard pallor – that The Insider never flags during the talk.  There’s drama in Wigand and Bergman’s furtive, covert meetings, or in a deposition where anti-smoking lawyer Ron Motley (Bruce McGill, stealing the film in his five minutes of screen time) puts the fear of God into Big Tobacco’s attorneys, or in the long shot of Wigand as he sits in an empty hotel room and lets the ramifications of his actions quietly devastate him.

More and more, it’s seeming like The Insider might have been the high-water mark for Michael Mann.  Things never got quite as good ever again – with the exception of the exciting-but-minor caper Collateral, Mann has oscillated between unsatisfying prestige pictures (2001’s Ali) and Heat-warmed-over (Miami Vice, Public Enemies).  The Insider never wavers, never loses focus, and by its conclusion, it’s gotten at something deep and true about the human condition – our revulsion-attraction to doing the right thing.  Who have thought that Mann would have found his true calling so far from his norm of violence and crime, and what a shame that he never returned to this realm.

Disney/Touchstone’s Blu-ray looks phenomenal – this was the last movie that Mann shot completely on film, and he and Spinotti gave it a gunmetal sharp look.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also quite good, though given the film’s subject matter, the track never reaches for the aural fireworks of a Heat or Public Enemies.

Features are scant.  We get a standard EPK production featurette and the “Inside a Scene” feature that plays Mann’s script notes alongside a scene between Crowe and Pacino.  I hoped for more, considering that The Insider received seven Academy Award nominations back in the day.

The Insider is Michael Mann’s most mature film, and a riveting, intelligent drama.  We need more movies like this, and we need Michael Mann to make them.

The Insider streets on February 19th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.