I hope I can say this under IMDb guidelines, but THE INSIDER is a little disappointing after the mighty HEAT. It's not that it's a bad film - on the contrary, it's a rare Hollywood film that treats its subject with seriousness, irony and complexity. Unfortunately, it shares the classical epic's delusion that somehow length confers greater worthiness, and so we get a lot of dragged out scenes of people just staring, which perhaps gives a truer sense of what it must be like for ordinary people in such circumstacnes - the sheer tedious dread - but dissipates, in contradiction of the closing credits, the film's 'dramatic effect'.
In many ways similar to ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (as has been pointed out) - an investigation into 'respectable' corruption (in this case the Columbia-like addiction-mongering of tobacco companies) - it is also that film's complete opposite. Whatever its flaws, Pakula's film was shaped as a thriller, had the exciting momentum of a thriller, the driving sense of two detective figures bringing enlightenment to a depressingly murky situation.
There was always a large element of wish-fulfilment about this. For a start, the case had already been won, the film felt like retreading old victories. But most seriously, the shadowy Establishment network that allowed Watergate to happen was never punctured - Nixon was a scapegoat, things were allowed to get back to normal. This is half-suggested in Pakula's tireless determination to make a conspiracy thriller out of everything, but the essential American faith in right and truth outing was generally asserted.
Michael Mann is too good a director to settle for this. His film does follow a feel-good arc - revelation of corruption, suppression of revelation, eventual revelation of revelation - which suggests that men of truth and honour can defeat proto-fascist corporate power. And there is, like THREE KINGS, a sense that audiences wouldn't be able to handle a more realistic ending.
But Mann ironises this arc at every turn. His hero is Lowell Bergman, a CBS news producer with a reputation for securing great stories in some of the world's most dangerous hot-spots. He is played by Al Pacino, an actor in the grandstanding manner, who, despite many villainous roles, carries with him a dogged, Spencer Tracy-like integrity. In following his point-of-view, we get to see the development of the plot and the workings of corporate power.
In the opening sequecne, as Bergman is being driven through Iran, we see what he sees - when he looks in a particular direction, the camera follows. The thing is, he doesn't see anything, he is blindfolded - the traditional treatment to the Hollywood hero has been brilliantly subverted, and undermines Bergman as a hero thorughout the film.
For instance, when Bergman, trying to persuade Wigand to talk, suggest, idealistically, information is power at a Japanese restaurant. Mann frames the two men sitting in the traditional Japanese manner, almost legless, not looking very powerful at all.
So in a film where there is an awful lot of talk adn exposition, it is crucial that Mann's irony gives us, the audience, the real view, as in that first sequence. A recurrent motif is Bergman standing godlike from a balcony looking out over a huge city - he does not survey all he sees; it's an impenetrable blank to him. Just as the plot slips away from him, he talks to Wigand on the phone on a beach- Mann cuts to him wading in the water like King Canute. This subtle ironising makes it all the more credible when this blustering hero, totally in control, driving the plot with ariculate confidence, is suddenly shown to have very little real power at all.
Wigand isn't ironised in quite the same way - he is in a more passive position, defending his family, repository of information. BUt his introduction also shows how removed he is from the real world. WE see him first in his office which looks onto a staff canteen - the realms are only separated by a glass wall, but they could be two different worlds - his dark, lonely,furtive, suffocating, sinister (we don't know what he's doing, but it looks very secretive), dislocatingly cut with the friendly, communal, human babble of the canteen. WHen he goes to leave the building, the camera slows down, the sound is blocked out, the light brightens, adn Wigand looks like he's entering a dream or fairytale world.
THis ironising is crucial, because the film takes on a feel-good turn. At first it suggest taht truth can be recorded, delivered to the public, despite the flexing of corporate muscle. When this threatens , there are alternative means of diffusion. BUt look at thow Wigand's testimony is recorded. We see the testimony split into different screens, teh 'real' Wigand and his screen image. Lter we see Bergman editing the piece, rearranging the truth to achieve it more powerfully. There is no such thing as an unmediated 'pure' truth, and although this might seem rather obvious, it sours the heric sense of the truth finally getting out to the public. Also disturbing is the possiblity, that never actually occured to me until the smear attacks, that Wigand might be lying. WE are given no evidence adn are expected to take this man's word. THE idea of anyone's 'word' being simply enough is so rejected by the film that itt further undermines the optimistic intentions, and this is never resolved withing the film. Is there somehow an abstract 'truth' thast can be extracted from the deeply compromised eople that utter it?
All this is great - and there are some interesting insights about families (although not, as ever with MANN, women) adn imiplications about the wider sphere of political and media corruptoin - but the film is too subversive for its own good. It undermines its heroes, its themes, its genre, its mode of representation, its setting. THis is all necessary adn brilliant, but it doesn't leave much for a film, certainly at this lentgh. Unlike ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN - a film about actively seeking a well-defined truth - THE INSIDER is about defending a compromised truth - and this passivity means that it can never work as a thriller - you keep waiting for something to happen adn it doesn't. It can't.
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