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Movie Analysis: THE INSIDER

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The titles quickly fade up and extinguish, burning away like the tissued wrapping of a cigarette. The first image smashes like a thunderbolt upon the screen, a point of view shot from behind a cloth hood. We hear the slightest whispers of strained breaths as tribal drums pound furiously on the soundtrack.

Not even thirty seconds into Michael Mann's 1999 film "The Insider" and we're already suffocating.

The man behind the mask is Lowell Bergman, the venerable producer of "60 Minutes", the highest rated and most trusted news program on television. Bergman is a prisoner, albeit a temporary one, being delivered to an undisclosed location to meet and arrange for an exclusive interview with Sheik Fadlallah, an influential leader of Hezbollah. This is what Bergman does. He gets the tough stories and always delivers on his word. His reputation and association with "60 Minutes" make him an impenetrable force. During the course of the film, his ethical codes and corporate loyalty will be tested. And the establishing shot behind that hooded mask will not only serve to reiterate the film's suffocating tone, but will act as an allegory to his ultimate journey, where he can no longer find protection and comfort inside the bubble from which he operates. The mask he has worn like a professional badge of honor will soon be lifted.

On an elementary level, though, the mask also signifies a cover-up.

We first see Jeffrey Wigand, our insider, from the confines of his office. He stacks papers into his briefcase and prepares to leave his employer, Brown & Williamson, for good. Wigand exists in his own suffocating bubble of isolation, as evidenced by the deafening quiet and solemnity of his space compared to the rowdy rustlings of an office party that plays outside his window. The camera seems to rest precariously behind his ear, as it does throughout the film, as it follows him exiting his office and entering the company lobby. There is usually a good one-half to two-thirds of the screen frame dedicated to the environment that surrounds that ear as it travels through. Beyond making for a more aesthetically pleasing frame, it also brings to life a sense of paranoia, makes you feel like you're right in the action with the characters, and just as importantly, feels conspiratorial. In addition, it often calls attention to the idea that each character makes up only a half of the whole story.

DUALITY

During the course of the picture, this unlikely pair will team up to crusade for truth and personal integrity. Mann has always harbored a particular fetish for this plot device exploring duality. Think "Heat" (the cop and the robber) or "Manhunter" (the cop and the serial killer). In "The Insider", it's the reporter and the whistleblower. Two men from different sides of the tracks, but within the confines of the story, one completes the other.

In this incarnation of the theme, Wigand (Russell Crowe) is a scientist recently terminated by the Brown & Williamson tobacco company for refusing to participate in some questionable product preparation practices. When ace producer Bergman sniffs out that Wigand has insider information he desperately wants to reveal, a David and Goliath battle ensues, pitting the two men against corporate red tape and Big Tobacco's iron fist. Wigand must battle against a confidentiality agreement he swore to uphold. Bergman must butt heads with CBS corporate, who pulls his story for fear of a major lawsuit.

The two men share common ground in spite of their vastly different backgrounds. Cheif among these similarities, though, is a genuinely powerful code of professional integrity (which will be endlessly tested and questioned throughout) and a palpable resistance to being pushed around. The exceptionally smart script by Eric Roth, coupled with some extraordinary editing, set the moral journeys of these two men in perfect balance; you never feel as though one character is receiving more of an emphasis than the other.

HE'S THE MANN

You also feel as though there isn't a single moment wasted. Mann is notorious for his extensive research. With "The Insider", you become an active participant in two distinctly different worlds: the struggling intellectual family man dealing with poverty and a breaking marraige, and the hustling environment of a top news organization. Mann may be the best director we have (outside of Spielberg) when it comes to filling the screen with action -- and I don't mean action of the shoot-em-up variety. For much of the film you witness the characters at work; you see what hurdles they must climb, where they prowl, how they navigate and get things done. In fact, "The Insider" stands as one of the greatest portrayals of a working environment outside of "All the President's Men" which, ironically, also dealth with the media industry. But unlike a film like "Miami Vice", which seemed only to concern itself with portraying a working protocol realistically, Mann brings many more contributions to the table with "The Insider".

The actors are always doing something, and these activities often imply a subtext beyond the words they speak. If Michael Mann is anything, he is certainly a director of subtext. The clearest example of this takes place during a hotel "interrogation" scene early on in the film between Pacino and Crowe. Crowe has an unspoken need to open up and Pacino has a keen insight into that desire. Subtly, both actors play the subtext -- Crowe is itchy and restless, Pacino is laser-focused and searching. These little quirks and perceptions lie just underneathe the surface of nearly every scene and help to create a completely realized world. Even the extraneous touches work on this level and add immeasurably to the texture of the piece. To wind up at that level of truth and expressiveness, a director must be able to coaxe his actors to that place. Mann has proven time and again how masterfully he can accomplish this.

No other director, with the possible exception of Adrian Lyne, can produce such incredibly tactile imagery from real world settings. Mann is a master at framing objects as absorbingly as he does people. Mann's film sense is so finely tuned and expressive, that the viewer can experience every sensation, every texture and every scent in nearly every scene. You could certainly praise Mann's work for the strength of their scripts, the singularity of their performances and the extent of their in-depth research, but any analysis would miss the mark without some mention of the intangibles. And that is how they feel.

For a 157-minute, largely prose heavy film, "The Insider" benefits greatly from these intangibles. This film, like so many others from this master director, oozes atmosphere in nearly every fiber of its being.

A PERFORMANCE ORGY

Every performance in the film is an absolute gem

Russell Crowe, his paunch belly lending him a fragility of character previously unseen in his work, gives the role of Wigand true dimensions. Bitter, defeated, vulnerable, temperamental and determined, Crowe honors the sacrifices Wigand and his family had to endure to expose the truth, while never veering away from the personal defects that often motivated his actions. He is at once rageful and heartbreaking.

You believe Pacino as a seasoned news veteran the moment he appears on screen. The people who claim that Pacino can only overact nowadays, need only witness his performance here. In a seminal moment from the film, pacino discovers that his trusted colleague and right hand man, Mike Wallace, is not standing by his side during the battle to put Wigand's story on the air. Pacino's physical expression of defeat and betrayal is pulverizing and stands as one of the greatest pieces of screen acting I have ever seen.

The criminally underused Christopher Plummer comes through with a stellar performance as Mike Wallace. He's as hard-nosed and rightfully arrogant as a legend should be and adds real dimensions and stakes to his character's arc. This is no sideline character in the context in the film.

In a film this complete, there is no such thing. Just take a look at actors Michael Gambon and Bruce McGill who both contribute to the film enormously with just a single scene a piece. Gambon plays the head of Brown and Williamson. In a pivotal scene, he calls Wigand into his office to offer a thinly veiled warning about his confidetiality agreement. Part southern charmer, part menacing power monger, he creates a presence so palpable that he can be felt throughout the remainder of the film (much like Alec Baldwin's one scene contribution to "Glengarry Glenn Ross"). The same is true of McGill, who portrays one of Wigand's lawyers and comes in midway through the picture. His unpolished determination and barely containable fury creates a wealth of alarming and hyper-energized moments within a matter of minutes.

IN CLOSING

Impeccably honest performances, keenly observant direction, atmospheric cinematography and a script that examines real-world issues both broad and minute, Michael Mann's "The Insider" envelopes you in a way that few movies do. A+

You can find this and many more in-depth film reviews at blog.myspace.com/raycejamey

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