Thursday, 24 May 2012

Film Review | The Insider (1999)

As a fan of films and the film industry, there are always going to be films that I naturally am attracted to or repelled by, usually due in no small part to the people involved in making them. Everyone has actors and directors whose work generally appeals to them, as well as those who they just don't get on with; Russell Crowe and Michael Mann are two people whose work independently, whilst not going as far as hating, I have struggled to enjoy in the past. So it was with some degree of trepidation that I decided to give The Insider a go; with the former starring and the latter directing, was there any chance I would be able to agree with the immense amount of praise the film had received on release?

The film is a dramatised account of a real life media event of the mid '90s. After being fired from his job at a "big tobacco" company, Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe) is contacted by TV producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) to help him decipher information he has received on the tobacco industry. Wigand's involvement with Bergman goes much further, however, to the point of Bergman working to have him featured on the TV show 60 Minutes to blow the whistle on many of the questionable practices within the tobacco industry. But Wigand's former employers won't simply allow this to happen without causing both men problems.

There's an awful lot to like about The Insider. The feel of the film is polished and highly crafted throughout, with a solid script at its core. Mann manages to create an authentic, almost timeless feel to the story - whilst the events happen in the late 20th Century, the ideas and issues tackled could apply to any time since the dawn of mass media - and I had less issue with his style direction here than I have in other films he has made. That said, Mann still chooses to ruin a handful of shots by opting for a "shaky" handheld camera style which felt out of place and did nothing but distract me from the story being told.

I wasn't aware until after watching the film that Crowe had been nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance as Wigand and, to be honest, I was a little surprised. That's not to say his performance wasn't good. Crowe manages throughout most of the film to imbue the character with the necessary pathos and suggestion of varying degrees of instability, but there were also times where I found his performance to be just good enough, and not what I'd call Oscar-worthy at any point throughout.

Pacino is reliably strong, bringing a tenacity to Bergman that is both believable and satisfying throughout the film. That said, this is not Pacino at his very best; at times he feels as though he is holding back, with only a couple of slow-burning rants to enjoy throughout the film's two-and-a-half hour running time. In a role such as this, Pacino could never have been anything less than great, but measured against his own back catalogue his performance here never threatens to be a defining one.

Worthy of mention in amongst a solid supporting cast is Christopher Plummer, who inhabits the role of Mike Wallace with a thick skin and constant fire in his eyes, outperforming both Crowe and, on several occasions, even Pacino.

And then there is the film's length. I've read other reviewers suggest that the near 150 minutes fly by, but I certainly didn't find this. The film is too long by around half an hour. Where that time could be removed from is debatable, but I felt that the opening act slightly lacked pace and that the final act trundled to a halt a little too much, rather than being brought to a controlled conclusion. It may be that Mann felt that he needed to include everything shown here to represent the true life events, but there is evidence here that he should have been more focused on creating a tight piece of cinema than a comprehensive document of all the events.

Despite what surely seems like a great deal of criticism, The Insider is undeniably a very good film, and almost certainly the film of Mann's that I've enjoyed watching the most. It's a film not without fault, but still a film of quality and craft and a fine example of a contemporary corporate and media thriller. Will it make me a convert of Mann and Crowe? Probably not, although I'll most likely be slightly more open to their work in the future. To me, The Insider is not the near-perfect piece of cinema many hailed it as at the time of its release, but it is certainly well made and worthwhile.


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