The Insider is evidence that Michael Mann’s cinema is marked by a formal and cultural ‘tense’ as linked to his historical heritage. Mann’s film language speaks in the ‘past tense’, in relation to Mann’s own biography – as a US citizen whose past is strongly influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam War struggles and the Watergate crisis. This is the United States that shaped Mann, just as it does the ‘new Hollywood’ per se. Mann’s films are endemic of the ‘new Hollywood’ milieu despite the temporal detachment of his films’ production. While covering contemporary context and settings, Mann’s philosophical and thematic origins are in ‘new Hollywood’, bringing about a dislocated vision. Mann’s specific cultural and historic origins are illustrated in the formal qualities and thematic philosophy of the ‘70s and this is represented directly through his characters (Bergman particularly in this film). During the 1968-1980 period American films began to speak about different hallmarks of the deconstruction of the American image, and especially the crisis of masculinity. The two male protagonists in The Insider emerge from divergent cultural paths, and in Geoffrey Wigand’s (Crowe) case (an affluent, upper middle class, middle American) it is not explicated as specifically as it is with Lowell Bergman (Pacino) (the street savvy, Journalist radical-come TV producer whose leftist politics are worn on his sleeve). Wigand’s morality and identity is the focus of his portion of the narrative, while Bergman’s specific ‘cultural circumstances’ are most important in his character’s make-up. It's this fusion of these two threads of America paranoia that emphatically push for The Insider's classification as a Five Star Film.
1. It was happening now [then]
Up until The Insider (1999), Mann’s work did not evoke the immediacy of filmmaking inspired by current events that so marked seminal ‘70s new Hollywood films such as All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) and Network (Sydney Lumet, 1976) or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979). The Insider has a contemporary and specific historical context in the late 1990s, but it uses the formal and representational connections of the ‘70s paranoia sub-genre as a means to illustrate the story and thematic links relating to institutions and corruption. The Insider can be categorised alongside the films that established the format of the Watergate-era espionage and political thrillers because the film uses formal means and narrative arc reminiscent of the paranoia sub-genre. The general structure of the paranoia thrillers features the conspirators (or conspirator) working to verify and uncover the lies perpetrated by the government/corporation/system. But instead of the United States government (or corporate system as metaphor for the government), Mann’s focus is a literal corporate conspiracy.
2. That opening
Mann creates a film that is strikingly ‘out of time’, in that the exact chronology of the film and the temporality it portrays is not anchored to the historical context that the event portrays. At the beginning of the film Mann introduces Wigand in his departure from The Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company after being fired. Mann punctuates his exit by framing the security guard informing the intangible pervasive system/other of his movements.
3. The Driving Range
In effect, with one scene (and even one line) Mann traverses the archetypical paranoia-thriller plot outline of the films made during the ‘new Hollywood’ moment. If one was to examine The Conversation from the point in the film where Harry Caul is not able to exchange his recordings directly with his employer (Robert Duvall), his story is almost identically replayed within the Driving Range scene in The Insider. Both Caul and Wigand are frustrated with not being able to deal with their employers/former employers in the way that they would like, and both have to regain their composure when they realise that they are being watched. The surveillance motif common in the paranoia thriller is heavily referenced in this scene. Both men experience the ‘double takes’ of the impossibility that they are being watched and up until the very end of their scenario there is a hope that they can control and insulate themselves from their paranoia. Until, finally, their impotent reactions leave them helpless and without closure.
Wigand is at a driving range late at night. He is trying to alleviate the tension caused by his most recent meeting with the Tobacco Company. He believes that speaking with Bergman is the catalyst for this pressure from his former employer. Wigand is tense and this tension is chaotic. Mann constructs the shots with multiple cameras that surround Wigand, capturing every static gesture, all of his stilted motion translates to an inability to focus and accomplish his goal. As Wigand begins to centre himself to the task, the camera pans across the black driving range to the illuminated tee-off platform. Mann shows the viewer that only one other person is there. This other man is focused; his swing is fluid and before Mann shifts the viewer’s focus back to Wigand, this other man reveals that he has been watching Wigand. Wigand composes himself and he strikes the ball successfully into the darkness of the range. Once again, he practises his ritual and again is technically fluid as he strikes the ball; all of the anger in his eyes begins to dissolve. But in completing his stroke he realises that he’s not alone. The other man continues to look in Wigand’s direction at the end of every stroke. Wigand’s focus has gone; instead, he is concentrating on this other man. Initial curiosity reverts to stoic realisation because the manner of this other man is suggestive of someone watching him. The other man’s dress is nondescript but his plain grey suit, white shirt and black tie insists the anonymity of a government agent. Mann begins capturing the point of view of the other man, and unlike the continually dynamic perspectives of Wigand’s paranoia, the other man is filmed from a static camera, slowly tracking behind this other/observer. In opposition to Wigand’s unkempt and uneasy manner, the other man is calm, clean-cut and purposefully returns Wigand’s gaze, almost acknowledging that he is watching him. As this exchange occurs the last ball the other man strikes is caught in the nets at the end of the range. At the point of this realisation, the lights dim and the driving range closes. Wigand uneasily enters his car and is out of breath, eyes wide. He tries to affirm his paranoia by staring straight out the window even though the cars are parallel. In one last glance, his antagonist stares him down, affirming his suspicions and forcing a restrained confrontation. Wigand takes one of his golf clubs and threateningly stalks out of his car with the intention to assault his antagonist.
WIGAND: Stay away from me … You stay away from me!
Wigand is helpless, his statuesque figure standing, watching the exit of the other man from the car park; the lack of closure punctuates how Mann captures the essence of the paranoia thriller captured within this scene.
4. “Of course not”
Bergman’s character encapsulates the honourable necessity of Woodward and Bernstein in making the public aware of the greatest governmental and institutional betrayal (the Watergate Scandal), and it takes the comically cynical portrayals of the media in Network and gives them a real world context. The pivotal scene in the film for Bergman is the discussion between himself, Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), Don Hewitt (Phillip Baker Hall), and Eric Kluster (Stephen Tobolowsky) about whether or not 60 Minutes will be airing Wigand’s exposé. Bergman is incensed as he stares out of the window of the high-rise to street level, seeing the commotion of commuters and traffic. In a way Bergman is longing for his street journalism origins but cannot yet escape the security of his position within the 60 Minutes institution. He turns to face the office as Kluster enters, and proclaims the corporation’s objective to create a precautionary cut of the exposé in case they cannot air the full episode containing Wigand’s interview. Bergman reacts by quoting from a dossier that outlines a possible corporate merger, which he hypothesises is dictating CBS’ decision to air the story. Bergman begins to soliloquise about his role as an investigative journalist to unearth ‘insiders’ for their stories and then the hypocrisy of their decision.
BERGMAN: You pay me to go get guys like Wigand, to draw him out. To get him to trust us, to get him to go on television. I do. I deliver him. He sits. He talks. He violates his own fucking confidentiality agreement. And he’s only the key witness in the biggest public health reform issue, maybe the biggest, most-expensive corporate-malfeasance case in U.S. history. And Jeffrey Wigand, who’s out on a limb, does he go on television and tell the truth? Yes. Is it newsworthy? Yes. Are we gonna air it? Of course not. Why? Because he’s not telling the truth? No. Because he is telling the truth. That’s why we’re not going to air it. And the more truth he tells, the worse it gets!
Bergman’s idealistic conception of the media’s immunity from corporate tampering is completely destroyed. Bergman finally comes to the realisation that he’s no longer working for Ramparts, he is not supported for his radical journalistic practices of the past, because the content of his stories can affect the interests of the corporate entity that until now has tacitly governed the production. Don Hewitt replies to Bergman’s rant with none of the ‘new Hollywood’ sentimentality of crusading and radical journalism:
You are a fanatic. An anarchist. You know that? If we can’t have a whole show, then I want half a show rather than no show. But oh, no, not you. You won’t be satisfied unless you’re putting the company at risk!
BERGMAN: C’mon, what are you? Are you a businessman? Or are you a newsman?! … “Put the corporation at risk”…? Give me a fucking break!
Bergman’s final proclamation deflates instantly as Wallace proclaims that he too believes that an alternate episode not featuring Wigand’s interview should be prepared. Bergman’s despondency is etched on his face. This initial compromise is the precursor for surrendering to a wholly corporate media enterprise. In Mann’s globalised world of the 1990s, corporate media interference has become a reality.
5. Fears Realised
The driving range scene posits the inescapable reality of the commonplace nature of the invasion of privacy that the ‘70s thrillers feared. The ‘new Hollywood’ connection is felt strongly here because Wigand is represented using the generic referencing of the loner, paranoid characters of the ‘70s films. Mann’s authorial technique and historical invocation can be seen in the film language used to depict Wigand and Bergman. Wigand shares the same loner characteristics of Harry Caul, and Bergman is framed with the same intent as ‘Woodstein’ from All The President’s Men. The contrast between the thriller films out of ‘new Hollywood’ and those of Mann is that the films of the ‘70s characterise the pervasive ‘system’ as governmental or an institution acting as a metaphor for the government. The world Mann is portraying only briefly alludes to governmental involvement; its focus is upon a society dominated by the globalised and corporate system and what kind of men struggle within its mechanisms. Mann’s work is anachronistic in complex ways, particularly in offering a very different vision of the USA to the dominant masculinity that Susan Jeffords describes as typical Reagan-Era ‘remasculinisation’. Mann’s films, rather, feature on-screen men entrapped by professionalism and rendered through a mode of acting and performance built through multi-layered intertextual referencing and affect.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
*This has been retooled from a larger thesis ‘What Makes a Mann’
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.