THE INSIDER: The Mann Who Knows About Film

In Michael Mann’s THE INSIDER, we start blindfolded and ingoing into a foreign road. It epitomizes much of the rest of the film: blindfolded characters who can’t watch their surroundings, but the surroundings watch them, like Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) in his house; or entering into a series of territories, like Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) does in trying to present his story to different men of the media. We’re in the era of access, and it runs both ways: we inform about others, and others inform about us. It is a film that explores the exposure of people, their information and the numerous avenues to spotlight it, for better or worse. This in a series of subplots and real-life characters that offer Mann the best material he could hope to find on a magazine article in Vanity Fair.

Where Mann’s previous film, HEAT, explored a society through a series of different episodes and subplots in a immense number of supporting characters, along with the two main ones, THE INSIDER mostly takes only the two main characters and runs them through the episodes endlessly. Where the intention of Mann in HEAT was to explore people’s similar necessities for connections and interactions through different levels of society, in this film is to focus on information, and the different hands and paths such data runs through in different echelons of the media, whether it is true or false. It retains the grandness of others films from Mann, but it is a more focused one. And while one assumes that the film is based on Wigand’s account to expose the tobacco industry he worked for, the film is further focused on Bergman’s account of the public’s handle of information. It is a bigger and more attractive theme than some of the other ones Mann has tackled in his other films (some of which lack a profound depth), and great material to match his great filmmaking.

In a picture where society is constructed under unsure news and chaotic data, Mann paints images that are both darkly unpredictable (i.e. Wigand practicing golf) and bleakly conflictive in the insecurities of it. The warmness is felt at each of the character’s respective homes (light and yellow-ish), where trust and each person’s identity are (or seems) safe and uncomplicated. But then there’s the outside world, which is uncertain and made of a coldness that is almost colorless, that faultlessly highlights the dark or deprived inhumanity and the colorful, human emotions left of the men’s lives. It is a film whose colors pick the perfect spots, and whose tone and pace always match the picture perfectly in the musical choices Mann makes, whether it is the cathartic, operatic songs or the rhythem of the words themselves. This is Mann’s most sensible film.

The film’s continuous motif lies on the fact that someone is always watching. Mann’s camera work rests upon this, setting up angles from the point of view of another person (i.e. when Wigand has to go into the office of his former CEO, played by Michael Gambon, where Mann films around the POVs of the men around Wigand), from the distance from someone who looks from a far, or acknowledging the presence of extra-characters who watch or hear the main characters; and a particular one in which Wigand seems to be watching us, while a lawyer of his looks at him from behind. It is a world where privacy has become non-existent, but the film is divided as a double coin: it is both a demonstration of the psycological assult that is the violation of privacy and personal exposure, as well as a defense of access and public coverage. In general, the entire film is a struggle with uncontrollable information.

While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Wigand is a McGuffin – Crowe has a great character in this, after all, and he delivers a magnificent performance – he eventually is indeed a pretext for the film’s rich journeying on how the general public deals with information and the different roads to present it. As in the moment when Bergman tries to contact Wigand’s home-phone but isn’t able to, and then Wigand contacts him through a fax machine, Bergman is in a time in which there’s always another way to present his words. The film’s proposal is that if there’s always someone watching, then one only has to find an avenue in which to send the stories in an era of unlimited public options, whether in the legal front, in the TV spectrum, or the newspapers (and in a near future, the internet). Someone will watch it right back. It is a provocative look into the monster that is the public media, the goods and evils of its humongous system, with both Bergman and Wigand journeying through society and contacting characters from all kinds of levels via continous scenes of phone calls or “private” meetings to show their true information, as they battle the false information thrown at them, in this world whose walls are transparent and data flies around hysterically. That Mann was inspired to this material by an article of Vanity Fair, and that Bergman contacted him about it is nicely ironic for the story.

Journalism is not an issue that is present too much in Mann’s continuum, but the film is a nice change of scene that still keeps his identity. Like men who always seem have to give their backs to the ocean, the characters turn their backs to a normal life in order to meet their current situations, and in this regard, Mann’s traditionalist angle of men who struggle between their home and workaholic personas is present. Then there’s the film’s psychological warfare, in which phone calls and meetings are the guns and is its own type of tense violence, as one character calls it, which Mann always provides with men whose jobs and duties clash with one another. Instead of cops and criminals, journalists and corporate people meet mano-a-mano. Everyone knows something, and that information is subject to a series of grand verbal matches similar to the shootouts in his other films.

In the case of Michael Mann, he is the one who knows film, and THE INSIDER is the great film that the filmmaker’s preceding couldn’t quite become. As an end to end exploration of journalism and the globe of information, it is a film that covers just about all the moral angles and arguments that one could have in a discussion of today’s press, and represents the filmmaker’s most inspired status as both a storyteller and a visualist of depth. By the time Bergman exits the offices of 60 Minutes, one can’t help to wonder at (a) Mann’s status as a filmmaker, (b) is there a more appropriate credits song than that one? And (c) whether Christopher Plummer is to Mike Wallace what comedian Frank Caliendo is to ex-sportscaster John Madden.

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One Response

  1. This is still my fave Mann film and I think his masterpiece where all of his thematic preoccupations are articulated so well with an engrossing story and note-perfect performances from everyone.

    You write:

    “Everyone knows something, and that information is subject to a series of grand verbal matches similar to the shootouts in his other films.”

    Well said! The shoot-outs of other films are replaced here by verbal matches as you so rightly point out with the big, climactic shoot-out, so to speak, being Pacino’s confrontation with the CBS brass.

    Excellent post! I really enjoyed reading it.

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