• He probably cannot quite touch the work of Scorsese, Kieslowski, or The Coen Brothers- but Michael Mann stakes a strong claim to being the greatest auteur of the 1990s rounded out by 1999’s The Insider.
  • There is real fear in The Insider and a scene with a gun, but really for the first time, Mann’s work does not include physical violence. This is the story of 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino teaming up with Mann again after Heat) and one of his stories (Mann effectively actually weaves in and out of a few) surrounding former tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand (a revelatory Russell Crowe).

This is a dramatic saga—with two heavyweight performances from Pacino and Crowe.

  • Shot on location In Kentucky (and the opening is shot in Lebanon). Mann uses his now trademark superwide 2.39: 1 frame, and like a slightly lesser version of Kurosawa before him—brilliantly uses the entire frame as his canvas.
  • The story starts on Bergman showing what he can do on the Sheikh Fadlallah story. Mann deftly interlaces the Unabomber in the final act to show this is just part of the extraordinary life Bergman leads.

the film is also a statement on the media and news cycle moving on as actual lives…. such as Wigand’s… are left on the wayside

  • Again, no real guns or violence, but Mann’s protagonists are all artists really (whether they are cop, thief, reporter)- and Mann is clearly awed by what Bergman can do with a phone- that’s his weapon. I am awed that Mann could create a film so suspenseful and beautiful with the main characters talking on the phone for half the pivotal scenes.

The scenes of Pacino’s Bergman on the beach are superb– somewhere between cobalt and midnight blue nights– just like Melville would achieve thirty years prior in Army of Shadows.

  • This is an achievement in mise-en-scene and using the entire wider frame. Wigand’s meeting with Michael Gambon’s Thomas Sandefur around the 30-minute mark is a standout. Mann shows a dedication to both foreground and background with both heads in the frame—and at the 31-minute mark Mann swings the camera entirely behind Crowe’s head.
  • The night golf range scene holds up as almost a standalone silent short film lesson on creating suspense.

At the 85-mniute mark Crowe’s Wigand has his glasses on in the very tight foreground right of the frame with the lawyer talking to him in the background- another jaw-dropper.

  • The ensemble does not sprawl quite like Heat, but there are great veteran actors galore here… Bruce McGill gets a big show-off scene, but really it is Christopher Plummer as Michael Wallace that should have been nominated for best supporting actor in 1999. Plummer does the best work of his career here. The scene where he eviscerates the Stephen Tobolowsky character and Gina Gershon character will give you chills.

Perhaps the most notable visual jaw-dropping sequences are the scenes of Crowe’s Wigand in the hotel in front of the mural.

Many of us were floored by Russell’s transformation in 1999 (this is one of the great films of that extraordinary year) as Wigand. He has white hair, glasses, a few extra pounds… but Wigand also requires Crowe’s physical presence (“I don’t like to be pushed around”) and strength. Still, it is hard to believe that only a few months later Crowe will be starring in Gladiator (2000). There is no reason to insult either film or performance, and I am happy Crowe won the Oscar for at least one of them, but his best work between the two films is here.

There is another one in the series not pictured here- a  close-up of him at the 125-minute mark with him in the front right of the frame again—with the mural in the back left.

Later, Pacino gets the cinematic painting treatment as the subject of Mann’s wide frame composition mastery—Pacino is in the front right of the frame at the 142-minute mark as the film wraps up.

  • I hate to pick at a nit, but this is better film with a cohesive musical score. Mann tries to curate little pieces that fit every scene—and mostly it works (if you are recognizing the Lisa Gerrard music it was also used in Gladiator the following year, another Crowe film, which is wild)- but not like a wholistic score would.
  • A Must-See film- top five of the year quality