The Insider (1999)

Russell Crowe in The Insider

Conflict doesn’t necessarily arise from the battle between good and evil. There are times when conflict comes from the push and pull of multiple opposing goods. Sometimes, this type of conflict is even a more tenuous struggle and a more gripping drama. The Insider is one such example of this.

The film tackles the true story of whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe). It follows how he discloses confidential information regarding the tobacco industry with the help of 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and the multitude of troubles that befall him because of it. It’s a story that, at face value, may be far from relatable for a lot of people. Yet the basic concerns that it touches on are the types of simple issues that can unsettle most of us.

It begins with Wigand and Bergman in parallel plotlines. The former getting fired from his job at tobacco giant Brown & Williamson and the latter getting an anonymous package of documents in the mail. Their paths intersect when Bergman searches for help to interpret the documents and he ends up being pointed to the direction of Wigand.

For about half an hour into the film the viewer is kept in the dark. What are in the documents? Why was Wigand released from his job? Mann patiently builds on the suspense until it’s revealed that Wigand is in possession of information that could wreak havoc not only on Brown & Williamson, but the entire tobacco industry. Once he decides to release the information via 60 Minutes, the film switches gears and Mann pulls out the thrills.

Now, as thrilling as it is to watch pristinely crafted gunfights, heists, car chases and the like, there’s nothing that brings out a more raw emotional response than that which taps into a person’s basest fears. In this film, Mann tones down the action to almost zero, yet reaches heights in terms of thrill and suspense that he hadn’t previously achieved with his more visceral work.

Throughout the predicament, one finds it very easy to be sympathetic and relate to the troubles of the poor family man out on a quest for justice. We want Big Tobacco to pay for their irresponsible conduct. We want our family to be safe and financially stable. We want our journalists to always put integrity and the search for truth before anything else. We want to believe that money and power is not everything in this world. So when the film shows us the peril and desperation that befalls a man who is on the right side in all of this, what else can we do but rage?

The Insider sees Michael Mann at the top of his game. There are moments when you can see him struggling to maintain the subtlety and nuance required for certain portions of the film, but he pulls it off. If ever there are lapses into heavy-handedness, they are very minor. As it stands, this is his most cohesive work. It highlights his ability to squeeze every ounce of tension from situations that most people can relate to and solidifies him as a master of his craft.

Rating: B+ (great)


Heat (1995)

Val Kilmer in a shootout from Heat

I might have just seen the best action-thriller movie ever. It’s just that this 2-hour movie exists within the 170-minutes of Heat, but I’m sure that it’s there and it’s amazing. It has this riveting and intense cat-and-mouse chase between the De Niro-led gang of criminals and the Pacino-led LA police. It has some of the most raw, visceral and well-crafted shootout sequences I’ve seen, including a particularly incredible one in the middle of downtown LA. It knows how to pace itself, can maintain tension even in its quiet moments, and has one of the most electric scenes you can ever have between two people talking in a diner.

What it doesn’t have is the rushed and underdeveloped subplot of how a bank robber meets a younger woman, falls for her, and how he wants to give up his life of crime so they could run off into the sunset. It neither has the story of a cop having domestic problems due to his dedication to his job, nor does it have the totally disjointed backstory of a getaway driver who just gets killed and dropped from the plot completely.

Thus is the predicament of Heat: It tries to be both a thrilling heist film and a romantic-drama at the same time. The good news is that it still succeeds at being the former. In fact, as a more taut and focused two-hour film, it can be considered the high point of the genre. The bad news is that Michael Mann really does not know how to do drama, and he’s even more inept at developing a believable romance. The one and only such scene that I felt worked in the film was at the end when Charlene (Ashley Judd) makes a sacrifice for her husband at the last second. That worked and it was powerful. The other bits of melodrama, not so much.

It’s almost as if Michael Mann thinks that his films can’t be compelling within the action and suspense only. The funny thing is that without the melodrama, his films actually are quite compelling. Watching De Niro’s Neil McCauley and Pacino’s Vincent Hanna – two passionate individuals who are similar in so many ways, yet find themselves on the opposite ends of a tense situation – is already an interesting setup that doesn’t need dramatic flourishes to support it.

I understand and appreciate how Mann was trying to make the stakes higher for both of them by including McCauley’s romance and Hannah’s domestic drama, but it just makes me wish that he was much better at writing these things. In any case, the parallels that one can draw between them is intriguing and the way in which Mann increasingly blurs the gray line between good and bad is fascinating. Ultimately seeing them understand, respect and admire each other through the conflict is what ends up being the most compelling thing about the story. Considering they both know that only one of them can come out of it alive ends up being bittersweet

Rating: B (good)

Thief (1981)

James Caan in the opening heist scene from Thief

Two mysterious characters come out in the dead of night. The bright streetlights contrast with the dark in stark noir fashion. Rain falls. Smoke fills a lifeless alley. Two thieves work their magic as a riveting musical score pulsates in the background. This is the opening scene to Thief. It runs for ten minutes yet feels like it just blows by once the pair of robbers drive back to their hideout as the sun rises on downtown Chicago. It exhibits the type of patience, control and meticulous attention to detail that one would think it was put together by a seasoned director. But it’s not.

If there were any opening scene from a feature film debut that one could say typifies the potential of a budding filmmaker, this would be it. In Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature, he exudes the visual and aural pizazz of an auteur far beyond his years. He juggles tones with expert dexterity at the same time filling the screen with a flamboyant style, which is to be his trademark in later years. He nails the gritty and sinister atmosphere of a vintage noir. He enthralls with thrilling and bloody action sequences. And amidst all of this, he compellingly tells the story of a tragic hero determined to follow his plans on his terms.

At the heart of it is James Caan infusing his innate tough-guy bravado into the character of an ex-convict we only know as Frank. He’s a businessman by day, running both a used car shop and a bar to front his criminal operations. But during the night is where the real money is, as he and his partner Barry (James Belushi) carefully map out and execute various diamond scores. The grand plan at the center of all of this being the realization of a perfect, normal life. A life with a wife, a child and a modest home in the suburbs.

It’s at this point where Mann shows a knack for playing with the viewer’s sympathies. When Frank’s fence bites the dust, all hell breaks loose. His plans get thrown off the rails, and try as he might to get them back on track his way, it becomes increasingly apparent that the only way may have to be by force. By the time the film draws to its climax, we find ourselves rooting for the criminal – this stubborn, hardened thief – hoping against hope that he comes out of it alive with his dreams intact.

Thief is precise and detailed. It’s intricately planned and slickly executed. It drills down to the details such as testing the voltage of wires for information and running an extinguisher under a thermal lance while melting away at a safe to make sure nothing catches fire. In fact it’s the perfect metaphor for the movie and that’s where the strength of the film ultimately lies. It’s such an intricately-made piece of work in that every shot, every edit, every scene and line of dialogue seems like it’s all been painstakingly plotted on a map.

Rating: B (good)