Michael Mann’s The Insider is a smart, adult, corporate thriller that I gain more from every time I watch it. I remember seeing it in the theater at age 14, sitting next to my old man as he whispered to me what was happening, the fancy language of the film consistently going over my head. I’ve always loved The Insider, but lately, I’ve become obsessed with its cinematography, immaculate writing of such dry material, and the details packed in it. Perhaps more than any of Mann’s films, The Insider best encapsulates his insistence on not treating the audience like idiots. You really have to pay attention to this film to fully grasp everything that’s going on.
I typically cover already-popular films in this “No One Talks About” series, but my sincere hope is that this post motivates some to check out this somewhat forgotten masterpiece. Enjoy!
I mean, really, who other than Michael Mann would open a movie with a 20 second POV shot from behind a blindfold?
The economy of Al Pacino’s movements in this film is something I’m going to discuss a lot. Watch the way Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) clumsily sits down in this chair. You really believe he’s blindfolded. That may sound like odd praise, but how many movies do you watch where blindfolded characters move as if they can see?
The way Pacino responds “Yeah, thank you,” when asked if he wants coffee. It’s as if he legitimately didn’t know someone else was in the room with him.
The way the light outside is quickly underexposed so we can see the city in this shot. Trust me, this is not an easy thing to accomplish in half a second in-camera.
The introduction of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) tells us everything we need to know about him. While coworkers lap it up with birthday cake and punch in one room, Jeffrey is hidden in the dark, solemnly packing his briefcase.
The great Dante Spinotti is the credited cinematographer of the film, but Mann himself did the majority of the camera operation, which means he was the guy who literally lugged the camera around as it rolled. He said this was important for shots like these, where the camera is mere inches from the actor’s face. He had established a trust with his actors, and felt that being the closest person to them during a live take was important.
The security guard talking into his mic as Jeffrey was by. And the slow motion.
The first thing Jeffrey does when he gets home is pour himself a stiff drink. He doesn’t even say hello to his wife (who is drinking a glass of wine outside in the middle of the day). I love what this says about Jeffrey and his wife.
The way Jeffrey smiles at his daughter. It’s a brief but important signifier that he’s a good and wholesome man.
Seriously, the character introductions in this film are superb. Look how Diane Venora glides into the room with her spotless blouse and southern accent. She looks and sounds so different here than she did as Pacino’s wife in Heat.
The way Jeffrey fumbles with the breathing device as his daughter suffers an asthma attack.
Jeffrey explaining the scientific reason why his daughter is having an asthma attack. One: he’s a very caring father who knows that the best way to talk to kids is not to talk down to them. Two: this dude knows his shit, he’s an expert scientist who can explain complicated things simply.
Jeffrey leaving dinner so he can go buy soy sauce from the store. The man is crumbling.
Another great introduction: the great Christopher Plummer as the great Mike Wallace. The jacket, the tan, the voice – perfect.
Mike getting all riled up before the interview. Man’s got stones.
Lowell: “Are you ready? Or do you wanna keep fuckin’ around and warm up some more?”
Mike: “No. I’ve got my heart started.”
First question: “Sheikh Fadlallah, thank you so much for seeing us. Are you a terrorist?” Stones.
Oh, by the way, Sheikh Fadlallah is played by master chameleon, Cliff Curtis. That man can blend in.
Lowell’s journalistic curiosity literally perking up after Jeffrey’s wife says Jeffrey doesn’t want to talk to 60 Minutes.
The tedium of Lowell and Jeffrey’s tense fax exchange. There’s an earned patience to the scene that modern technology would eliminate.
Pacino preparing to catch his glasses before they fall. That’s such a Pacino thing, that economy of movement. Like the gum in Glengary Glen Ross.
Jeffrey taking a step away from the window after there’s a knock on Lowell’s hotel room door.
Another Pacino moment of movement. I love the way he grabs the documents and gives them the briefest of looks before handing them over to Jeffrey. I can’t fully explain why I love these choices Pacino makes. They just feel so real.
Mike: “Are you eating with us?”
Mike: “Wear a tie so they let us in the front door.”
The way Michael Gambon (playing Thomas Sandefur as a perfect creep) refers to Jeffrey in the third person with Jeffrey in the room.
This scene ranks among the finest acting Russell Crowe has ever done. With his former boss questioning his integrity (and borderline threatening Jeffrey’s family), Crowe barely conceals his inner volcano that is about to erupt.
Who other than Dante Spinotti could make a scene at a driving range one of the photographical highlights of a film?
What impressive, silent acting from this guy. His physical command of space is so intimidating.
Lowell strolling into frame at Jeffrey’s home. And the rain. And that look.
One of the main things I love about Michael Mann’s writing is that it is packed with detail, without explicitly commenting on the details. For example, Lowell travels all over the world, day-to-day, night-to-night. In the first 40 minutes of the movie, we see him trek to the Middle East for a story, to his home in California, to Kentucky to meet Wigand, to New York to produce, and back to Kentucky to meet Wigand. THAT’S the life of a TV news producer. We never see Lowell on a plane, nor does the film offer any setting title cards to establish where we are. It’s all in the details.
Jeffrey: “My father was a mechanical engineer. The most ingenious man I ever knew.”
Lowell: “Well my father left us when I was 5 years old he was not the most ingenious man I ever knew.”
Again with the accuracy. This is Michael Mann, shooting a professional actor (Colm Feore) in the cockpit of a flying plane, because… why not?
Lowell holding out the word “shit” as he hangs up with Richard Scruggs (Colm Feore). Pacino and phones, man.
The staging of scene where the FBI take control of Jeffrey’s home is impeccable. Their presumptive questions, the stealing of Jeffrey’s computer, Jeffrey falling over in the yard; all scored to Gustavo Santaolalla’s “Iguazu.” Masterclass stuff.
And Lowell’s heated reaction to the FBI’s behavior is a perfect showcase for Pacino’s rage.
“You better take a good look, because I’m gettin’ two things: pissed off, and curious!”
Liane Wigand’s (Diane Venora) mortified reaction when she discovers Jeffrey is going to be taping with 60 Minutes.
Mike: “Who are these people?”
Lowell: “Ordinary people under extraordinary pressure, Mike. What the hell do you expect, grace and consistency?”
The “Holy shit, we got it” reaction of Lowell’s assistant, Debbi (Debi Mazer, who is great in the film), during the taping.
The pause Russell Crowe takes before his excellent delivery of “Poor communication skills.”
The spat Jeffrey and Liane have at the kitchen sink. Such a real moment.
In terms of cinematography and editing, the scene where Jeffrey walks through the airport with his new security team is my favorite sequence in the film. The overexposed light of the opening shot, the frantic pace, the slow motion of Jeffrey walking toward the camera, the security team expertly moving a potential threat out of the way – I love how the scene captures the efficiency in which cautious men move.
The Attorney General of Mississippi, Michael Moore, playing himself.
Great stealth oner (a long take disguised to not look like a long take): Colm Feore’s compassionate monologue in which he stresses to Jeffrey that he understands what he’s going through. Length: 57 seconds.
Jeffrey: “Fuck it, let’s go to court.”
Scruggs (without missing a beat): “Dr. Wigand would like to leave now.”
Bruce McGill fucking going for it during the court scene. Proof that there are no small roles.
Jeffrey and Lowell sharing a pleasant laugh after court. It’s one of the few times we see either of them fully smile in the film.
The collective awe in the CBS editing bay after everyone watches the rough cut of Jeffrey’s segment for the first time. Plummer even seems to get a little emotional.
Jeffrey whimpering as he realizes his wife has left him. Crowe unleashes a quiet emotion throughout this film that we haven’t seen from him before or since. It’s miraculous.
When The Insider was released in 1999, Gina Gershon was known for playing sexpots in flicks like Showgirls, Bound and Face/Off. I love that Mann gave her a chance to flex her true dramatic chops in The Insider by playing Helen Caperelli, a hotshit CBS lawyer.
Lowell’s reaction to Helen explaining “tortious interference.”
Lowell: “‘Tortious interference.’ Sounds like a disease, caught by a radio.”
Very few directors, let alone mainstream Hollywood directors, have the nerve to open a new scene with a shot like this.
Anyone who has worked in an office knows what this is like. You’re told one thing in a big room (in this case, that Lowell’s segment is still looking good), and then told something completely different in another room moments later (in this case, that Lowell needs to cut an edited version of the segment). In real life, this is boring shit, but somehow Mann makes this one of the most compelling scenes in the film. Pacino is on fucking fire here.
And how great is it that Mann holds on Pacino for 40 seconds while he goes off? Why cut away from gold?
The defeat in Lowell’s eyes when Mike sides with CBS corporate.
This brief scene of the investigator talking to Jeffrey’s ex-wife, which pays off in a creepy, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene in Jeffrey’s school a few minutes later…
The lengthy segment of Lowell going behind CBS’ back to defend Jeffrey. Lowell asks the Wall Street Journal to hold their story on Jeffrey, he hires his own investigative team, talks to the Associated Press, talks to The New York Times – he’s a man on the move, and Mann makes you really pay attention in order to grasp everything that’s happening. Again, details.
Christopher Plummer’s brilliant decimation of Helen Caperelli and CBS News President, Eric Kluster (Stephen Tobolowsky). “‘Mike. Mike.’ Try ‘Mr. Wallace.’” How Plummer failed to nab an Oscar nomination here is beyond me. A competitive category that year, I know, but come on.
Again, what mainstream director would light one of the biggest movie stars in the world this way? Yet, it absolutely works. You’re right there on that beach with him.
This master shot.
“‘I’m Lowell Bergman, I’m from 60 Minutes.’ You know, you take the ‘60 Minutes’ out of that sentence, no one returns your phone call.”
This delicate scene between Pacino and Plummer, in which Mike quietly berates Lowell. It’s some of the best acting either has ever done.
Another amazing bit of behind-the-scenes corporate politics.
“YOU FUCKED US!”
“NO! You fucked you! Don’t invert stuff.”
This is masterful staging. As Lowell watches the unedited segment in an airport, the camera cuts to a handful of people watching the segment. Now, look at this master shot that concludes the scene. If you look carefully, you can see all of those people staged perfectly in the frame. This is the type of shit that compels me to make movies. It’s so immaculately staged and executed; nothing short of awe inspiring.
Lowell and Mike sharing one final look before Lowell walks out of 60 Minutes. Two old comrades, torn apart by corporate fear, but always maintaining respect.
And finally, the insanely slow motion closing shot of Pacino walking away from 60 Minutes. The flipping of the collar, the music – what is there left to say?
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