Thoughts on Michael Mann’s ‘The Insider’ (1999)

Al Pacino and Russell Crowe in The Insider

Starts slow, but the queasy build of greater and greater consequence while simultaneously those in power start losing faith in the worth of their cause is undeniable. Did we really need to see Pacino and Plummer conduct a hostile interview with a Sheikh in convince us that they’re proper hard men, and not delicates?

Mann’s continued obsession with the how starts to undermine the picture here. When Crowe returns home to find his family absent and silently acknowledges the security guard who most likely helped them pack their things we get a sense of what the impact of his continual sacrifice means, but outside of that the focus on the materiality of his situation leaves us high and dry to how his fundamentally changed relationship with a new unkind world is affecting him.

I’ve got this read on Mann’s characters, that they’re all fundamentally empty people — it’s why they stare at the sea so much, searching for meaning only to see the empty void inside their soul. It’s why they’ve gotta pursue whatever action they think is gonna give them definition with wild intent. A heist, an arrest, even (in the case of Mohicans) a consummation. I see that with Pacino, but Crowe can’t find it, and he’s rather hung out to dry for his trouble.

He gets to be reactive, which puts him in a category with the rest of the rubes. By the halfway point he’s relegated to sitting and stewing, his job is done. The loss is to the film’s benefit though, I love all that newsroom shit and suddenly we’re just getting a lot of Christopher Plummer and Philip Baker Hall, like, I’m down.

The subject feels weird, for the weight it carries and how uncommented it is upon. ‘Cigarettes are bad, the folks who sell them know this and do it anyway.’ I mean, even at the time it actually happened was anybody surprised by this? Maybe the fine details weren’t public knowledge, but surely folks knew that these were disingenuous shits?

I guess that closing title was what made it clear, plus all the talk about the court of public opinion. Everyone knew, but business protects its own, and the quest is to scream so loud at their buttresses that they can’t ignore the truth anymore. Maybe none of these people were actually smokers. Even so, I admire Mann’s restraint in not going for that cheap gag.

I think I’m starting to get exhausted with his brand of things, though maybe it’s just his longer running times leave more room for thought. I’m trying not to focus too much on how he chooses to represent (or perhaps more accurately not) because his movies are so clearly about other things. But he keeps insisting on portraying these wives and why do them like that?

His work is weighty though, and self-serious but so far has done enough to actually earn being so. His camera keeps pushing close to the faces of his actors, and they seem all at once more grounded in, and unsure of, the world. 100% Chris Nolan got the ending of Inception from here, that wonderfully murky hallucination.

I want to see what it looks like when one of his characters fails, when their conception of themselves is so totally blown up in their face that they don’t have to keep up the pretence no more. All these hard men, having to stoically keep on. What would happen if the mask ever actually fell?

I’m watching the films of Michael Mann alongside the Blank Check podcast, check them out if you’ve been enjoying these retrospectives. I also try list all the films I watch on letterboxd, so check me out there to catch everything else

Al Pacino and Russell Crowe in The Insider

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