Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Insider

The Insider


USA 1999, dir. Michael Mann, stars Al Pacino, Russell Crowe

Although he remains best known in Britain for devising Miami Vice, Michael Mann has quietly and steadily improved as a film director over the past 20 years until he now stands head and shoulders ahead of his competition, in the USA at least. The Insider, a true-life tale of a tobacco industry whistleblower, may not quite match Mann’s last effort Heat (perhaps the best American film of the 90s) but even so it makes most other current releases look extremely paltry in comparison.

There can be very few directors in history who have had the sheer technical mastery of the medium Mann now exercises as a matter of course, and, on the basis of Heat and The Insider, I’ll go as far as to state that, Mann will now go on to make masterpiece after masterpiece until he has pushed the medium as far as it will go. He really is that good.

Just one example from The Insider, which will be used on film studies courses the world over to show students how shots should be created and cut together into powerful dramatic scenes: Russell Crowe, as whistleblowing scientist Jeffrey Wigand, is starting to fear for his safety. His former employers are putting increasingly threatening pressure on him not to go public with his knowledge of their misdeeds to TV producer Al Pacino. To unwind, he practices his golf swing on a floodlit driving range at night, then notices another golfer has joined him on the range. Mann’s use of lighting, his manipulation of perspective, his use of sound, his cutting, all come together to make the audience feel every ounce of the paranoia and anger that mounts inside Wigand’s head. It’s an astonishing sequence, but there are literally dozens of others throughout the movie.

Mann has said that the fact that the film is about a real-life tobacco company isn’t particularly important to him – it “might as well be about linoleum,” in his words. This is true. The story of The Insider is gripping and far-reaching in its consequences of the American media and industry in general, but it’s basically TV movie stuff. In Michael Mann’s hands, however, it becomes, to use Wigand’s phrase about the wonders of chemistry, “a magical journey.”

by Neil Young
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