" I’ve never felt such tension. It’s like riding a psychotic horse to a burning stable. "
— Robin Williams, The Birdcage

MRQE Top Critic

Force Majeure

Little fights turn into big fights when couples use their emotions as weapons —Marty Mapes (review...)

An avalanche is a Force Majeure

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Not that I put much stock in the Academy Awards, but 3 people deserve nominations for their work on The Insider: Al Pacino and Russell Crowe for their focused performances, and Michael Mann for his clockwork direction.

The Insider is an intense, involved drama about Jeffrey Wigand’s whistleblowing on Big Tobacco and Lowell Bergman’s work producing a 60 Minutes segment about him. Two and one-half hours fly by as the detailed drama unfolds.

The movie opens on Bergman (Pacino) risking his life to set up a 60 Minutes interview with the leader of the Hezbollah. Yet even while he’s producing one segment, he’s looking ahead to the next one — a segment on the fire hazards of smoking in bed.

Wigand (Crowe) is introduced to us as he leaves his job at Brown & Williamson, one of the Big Seven tobacco companies. Mann’s close-up, hand-held camera (his cinematographer was Dante Spinotti) implies an ominous, Big-Brother watchfulness as Wigand leaves the building, and throughout the movie.

The two cross paths when Bergman calls Wigand, hoping to hire him as a consultant on his fire-hazard story. Wigand strongly refuses Bergman — so strongly that it piques his curiosity. Bergman smells a bigger story under Wigand’s nervousness.

Meanwhile, the Big Brother cinematography that implied Wigand’s paranoia, turns out to have been well-founded. Brown & Williamson calls him back in to renegotiate the terms of his confidentiality agreement. They seem to know that he has spoken to someone, and they want to tighten the knots in his gag order.

Luckily for Bergman and 60 Minutes, the more pressure Brown & Williamson put on Wigand, the more eager he is to come forward with his story.

Part of the reason Mann is so successful is that every character has his own motives. No character exists merely as a plot device. So although Bergman and Wigand often collaborate, each has a different reason for doing so, each with a different goal. Such human motivators as trust, integrity and honesty all figure in to the characters and their actions.

Another reason is that the intensity of the story never falters. Although the movie is over two hours long, there is no fat that should have been trimmed. Every scene is important to the film, and no scene goes on too long.

Finally, there are some technical reasons that Mann’s movie succeeds. The first is where Mann and Spinotti put the camera. For example, they broke one of the fundamental rules of filmmaking, but for a good reason. One should never “cross the eyeline” — that is to say, if Pacino and Crowe are talking and Pacino is on the right side of the screen, he should always be on the right side, at least during that conversation. But in two places, the eyeline is crossed repeatedly. The effect is disorienting, which is both why you shouldn’t do it, and why they did do it in The Insider.

The second is in the editing. Mann and editor William Goldenberg would sometimes edit for mood. For example, when Wigand crosses back into Kentucky after possibly violating part of his confidentiality agreement, he puts himself at risk of arrest. A burning car sits by the side of the road. Plotwise, the car is a coincidence, but its inclusion shows externally what Wigand’s emotions must be doing internally.

And finally, the amount of polish the filmmakers used shows great craft and respect for the audience. Carefully designed sound schemes and well-framed widescreen shots are the outer signs of a movie that is very good through and through.

To top it all off, Pacino and Crowe give outstanding performances in serious, well-rounded, and substantial roles.

The Insider is a success at every level. It’s a gripping drama, not to be missed.