Thursday, July 9, 2020

Reserved Seating Goes All Pacino: THE INSIDER

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who are gonna give you your fix.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: This week, we return to our All Pacino series with one of his best: Michael Mann’s The Insider, starring Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, and a deep supporting cast. The Insider reunited Pacino and Mann after the success of 1995’s Heat and Mann trades his crime film expertise for a complex drama looking at corporate whistleblowers and the television news media. Crowe plays a scientist named Dr. Jeffrey Wigand who was unjustly fired from his employer, Brown & Williamson, after objecting to their decision to enhance the addictive elements of their nicotine products. Bound by a strict confidentiality agreement and under severe intimidation by corporative operatives, Wigand is at a crossroads between speaking to 60 Minutes to serve the public interest and keeping quiet about what he knows. Pacino plays 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, who sees a crucial news story dying to come out and advises/supports Wigand every step of the way.

The Insider was a critical but not financial success and was nominated for multiple Academy Awards in 1999. It’s one of the best films of that year. It also was part of a tremendous winter season for Pacino in theaters, with The Insider coming out in November and Any Given Sunday one month later at Christmas. They’re very different roles and Pacino is excellent in both.

Most times I watch The Insider (which I’ve probably seen about 10 times over the years), I’m convinced it’s Michael Mann’s second-best movie after Heat. This viewing was no different. I was hanging on every sentence and each story; Crowe’s (which dominates the first half of the movie) and Pacino’s (which takes over in the second half) are equally captivating. This is a movie that could have easily come across as dry, but Mann’s expertise in tension and suspense from his crime films really lends itself to the paranoia and righteous anger in The Insider. As much as I love Pacino in The Insider, the performance of the film is by Russell Crowe, who has never been better and should have won his Best Actor Oscar for this film and not a year later for Gladiator, though you could argue that win was a make-up for The Insider.

What do you think of the movie, Rob?
Rob: This is probably my third or fourth viewing of The Insider, and it just gets better every time. I love these kinds of wheeling-and-dealing thrillers, and it’s fun to compare Mann’s approach to someone like Oliver Stone’s, whose take on Jeff Wigand’s story would be considerably more frantic and paranoid, to say the least.

Adam: So many different film stocks would have been used.

Rob: It all starts with Al, though. He’s so great here, and I think it’s because he seems to get a kick out of bouncing off seasoned actors with different energies. Guys like Crowe, Christopher Plummer, and the great Phillip Baker Hall give him a lot of different flavors to work with. He’s more restrained in this one — certainly more so than in Heat or Any Given Sunday — but still severe without going Insomnia-level maudlin.

Adam: You really believe his journalistic idealism without it ever getting sanctimonious.

Rob: Crowe, on the other hand, is more isolated and internal. I don’t know much about the real Jeffrey Wigand, but Crowe is clearly playing someone on the Autism spectrum. He’s doing it incredibly well, too, and a lot of his best moments come when he’s suppressing emotions or using practiced social skills to seem more genial. He doesn’t play him like a “weirdo,” and it’s clear that Mann isn’t interested in overplaying that aspect of his personality. It’s also clear that Wigand feels real kinship with Pacino’s Lowell Bergman and that they don’t hesitate to lean on each other in tougher moments. It’s a pair of excellent performances.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions The Insider raises about moral imperatives and ethical responsibilities, and I admire that Mann and his writers don’t condescend to the audience about what any of us could or should do in these situations. In the end, Wigand is right to blow the whistle. The CBS team is right to consider the legal risk of running the story. Lowell is right to show loyalty to his source. Hell, as far as the law is concerned (as screwed up as it is), B&W is right to enforce protections on its intellectual product. On the other hand, everyone is wrong! Wigand is insane to compromise the welfare of his family. Lowell is naive to think corporate media doesn’t have a responsibility to its shareholders (as screwed up as that is). Mike Wallace is misguided if he thinks he can play both sides and retain some kind of journalistic integrity. B&W’s corporate espionage is totally gross. But then, how much of it matters? Won’t the universe’s inertia keep it rolling along, regardless of our choices? The Insider not only forces its characters to make those choices, but it doesn’t let them off the hook with easy karmic victories. We’re all Wigand, trying and often failing to find a criteria for our actions.

Anyway, I loved Pacino’s beach house. I bet he gets up to all kinds of fun.
Adam: He and Lindsay Crouse probably play volleyball all the time. I love the cast in this movie so much. It’s so deep that Breckin Meyer plays one of Pacino’s sons and all he does is walk through a door. Over the years, I’ve really developed an admiration for Christopher Plummer and his work as Mike Wallace is terrific here. He brings just the right amount of bravado and gravity to the portrayal but also leaves room to show how vain he can be too. Bruce McGill and Wings Hauser have a phenomenal shouting scene in a deposition hearing that I could watch on a loop. Michael Gambon does slimy better than anyone. I love when he plays a heavy in movies like this and Open Range. Plus, this movie has my boy Colm Feore!

I think my favorite part of The Insider is we get to see intelligent people doing their jobs. Without even realizing it at first, Pacino’s character takes over the movie in the second half and it’s riveting to see wheeling and dealings with his broad network of newspaper reporters, lawyers, and FBI directors. On the opposite end, we don’t get to see Crowe at work as a scientist exactly, but we hear him talking about chemistry and teaching the subject and there’s never any doubt that Wigand is a brilliant man. Crowe tosses off the technical dialogue in such a believable manner. I said it earlier, but it’s impressive how fascinating The Insider is when it could have been such a chore to watch with the wrong director and/or actors.

Rob: What I love about that dynamic is that Crowe starts the movie at Point Z in his career (fired unjustly, considering making a moral stand), while Pacino starts at Point A in his (in control, confident in his status). The story of The Insider is essentially Pacino getting to his own Point Z. I love that.
Adam: Is it just me or does this movie make you want to watch 60 Minutes? Every time I watch The Insider I want to tune in for a few weeks. Does it make you want to watch 88 Minutes?

Rob: No power on this earth would make me want to watch 88 Minutes again. But I do feel that, in a strange way, a movie like The Insider reaffirms my faith in our institutions. Corrupt and flawed as they may be, I feel like there’s hope as long as someone is working to make them better.

This was a great re-watch. Anything else on The Insider? What’s up for next week?

Adam: Just that I strongly recommend the movie to anyone who’s never seen it. It’s one of my favorite dramas of the 1990s. We’ll be back next week to discuss Hard Rain, starring Morgan Freeman and Christian Slater - a box office bomb that I’ve wanted to see since it was released. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

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