The Insider and more
Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer
(Touchstone Pictures; 1999)
Even before they started taking down the Marlboro Man billboards, just about everyone agreed cigarettes were bad for you. Macho associations aside, it was more a matter of freewill; not unlike drinking alcohol, certain risks are associated with legal, if unhealthy behavior. That’s America. Of course, more than a few people would have been outraged to learn how much chemical manipulation was taking place in order to make those cancer sticks even more habit- forming.
So: some dirty secrets were kept strictly under wraps, as a matter of policy. Big Tobacco counted the money and its executives testified that, to their knowledge, nicotine was not addictive. Considering the money involved, the perjury committed, and the industry’s unfettered success with litigation, only the most recalcitrant underling would dare defy its wrath.
Enter Jeffery Wigand, VP of Research and Development at Brown & Williamson in Louisville Kentucky. He is well paid if unfulfilled, but reaches the end of his moral rope once he discovers the company is systematically using toxic chemicals (like ammonia) to enhance the addictive properties of its cigarettes. His refusal to play ball gets him fired; his refusal to remain silent about it invokes the god-like wrath of his former employer. Enter Lowell Bergman, producer for the CBS show 60 Minutes, who could accurately be called a crusader (as a compliment from his fans and an epithet from his enemies).
Bergman meets Wigand by chance, but quickly realizes the powerful information the scientist is struggling to conceal. The tipping point—for both men—is when they each understand how badly Wigand actually wants to speak out, and it’s only the threat of a lawsuit (and loss of severance) that is keeping him quiet. To ensure they have made their position clear, B & W initiates some subtle and not-so-subtle harassment of Wigand’s family. Once the death threats begin, he decides to tell his story to Mike Wallace. The rest is history.
The Insider is an unqualified artistic success, and one of the most important movies of the last ten years. It is remarkable drama, compellingly portrayed. It is also director Michael Mann’s finest film. It features a gorgeous soundtrack (courtesy of Lisa Gerrard). It boasts some of the finest acting in Al Pacino’s legendary career. And Russell Crowe not only delivers his personal best work, he turns in what is possibly the best performance since De Niro in Raging Bull. With all respect to Mann’s considerable abilities, he wisely manages to stay out of the way and let the scope of this story supply its own abundant energy. His restraint has the opposite effect of the overwrought (and overrated) Heat, which attempted to parlay an armed robbery into an opera.
With The Insider, he takes grand theater and mostly scales it down to its human elements: the people making the decisions and the people devastated by them. Forget the forever discussed showdown between Pacino and De Niro in Heat. The ongoing confrontations (initially contentious, ultimately loving) between Pacino and Crowe are effulgent. Their entire time on the screen is a two-and-a-half hour acting clinic.
Jeffrey Wigand, as a character (and a role) is practically too good to be true: his life is derailed in part by his own hubris and mostly by the ugliest kinds of corporate machinations. Ultimately he recognizes his fate is to accept the circumstances and consequences that are bigger than his privacy or security. Crowe is equal to the task. Beyond the superb script and expert direction, he instinctively grasps that in order to convey the depths of Wigand’s turmoil (and, equally important, avoid an easy, almost inevitable descent into bathos—one shudders to think of what the majority of A-List actors would have done to this part, if given the opportunity), he has to present a brilliantly flawed man always at risk of imploding. Wigand is not a saint and neither Crowe nor Mann attempt to portray him as one. There is so much anger, frustration and fear coiled within his super-sized frame, Crowe consistently seems obliged to expel words from his mouth as much as speak them. As Wigand, he is almost unrecognizable with his added weight, bleached hair, glasses and disheveled defensiveness.
As Lowell Bergmann, the irrepressible producer who has the pleasure (and burden) of working with the megalomaniacal Mike Wallace, Pacino conveys the passion and purposeful edge that made Wigand’s ultimate triumph possible. Bergmann’s quandary is less dangerous but arguably more unwieldy: after gaining Wigand’s trust and convincing him to break his confidentiality agreement, he is directed by the brass at CBS to censor the segment. “The greater the truth, the greater the damage,” he is told in a sickening sequence that illustrates the ways in which corporate media’s cowardice might be even more profound than Big Tobacco’s rapacity.
The Insider is a rare artistic achievement that is compelling as it is important. It is a document that recalls the world as it used to be, while depicting the decisions and events that changed it for the better. Sean Murphy
Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Chris Rock
(Lions Gate Films; 1999)
Kevin Smith’s Dogma is a film poised deftly between two cinematic spheres: iconoclastic religious satire and juvenile, foul-mouthed comedy. Its particular clandestine genius lies in how the latter is enfolded into the former to such an extent that the off-color content becomes an argument against the limiting aspects of organized belief. In a nutshell, all of Smith’s fart jokes, dick jokes, shit jokes, sex jokes, and stoner jokes are not only funny; they’re spiritual conduits. They’re an anti-Augustinian embrace of the carnal and the corporeal aspects of human existence as the purest and truest sign of the grace that the Almighty bestowed upon his mortal creations.
As strange as it sounds, it bears saying: Silent Bob is a humanist. And Jay is a fucking prophet.
If Dogma has a cinematic antecedent, it is clearly Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Both films intelligently satirize the vagaries and hypocrisies of organized religion without targeting the scriptural teachings of Jesus. Both films were met with protests by religious groups who hadn’t actually properly watched them. And both films are routinely held up by devotees bent on proving that their comedic heroes could indeed tackle serious issues as well as they could deploy laughs. Nonetheless, Dogma is virtually singular in American mainstream cinema for its acceptance of faith and honest engagement with the structures of belief. Smith doesn’t point and laugh at believers like Bill Maher, nor does he build an aesthetic wall between the faithful and the doubtful as Mel Gibson did (though he does employ nearly as much fake blood).
Although Smith is forever associated with slacker cinema thanks to early efforts like Clerks and Mallrats, his later works took aim at push-button social issues like sexual orientation (Chasing Amy) and pornography (last year’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno). More than anything, though his visual sense is most often criticized as slack (and rightly so), his scripts display not merely a facility with hilariously foul language but also a penchant for keen observations about the weight that cultural expectations place upon people’s shoulders. This is most evident in Dogma, as Smith places his various characters (human and supernatural) at vastly different angles to faith and to religion. He then has the patience to point the camera at them and let them talk it out, and the skill to make their words insightful, relevant, and often damned funny.
Though much of Dogma is made up of little more than people talking, it’s worth noting how ambitious and deeply unique a film it is. By the late ‘90s, Smith was clearly champing at the bit to move beyond the View Askewniverse that had made him a fanboy icon. After the feature-length in-joke that was Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, he did move on, but Dogma made it evident that he was already packing his bags. With a plot built on an obscure piece of Catholic dogma (plenary indulgence; Google it), characters based on Christian mythology (yes, I know: God hates it when we call it that), and the endless jabberings of Jason Mewes, it’s a strange brew indeed.
It’s got a sharp reading of Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” as a critique of organized religion, and it’s got demonic rollerblading teens armed with hockey sticks. It’s got Salma Hayek stripping, and it’s got a brave confronting of Christianity’s historically-inaccurate Aryan Jesus imagery (though the critic places the blame with the colorblind Bible rather than at the feet of Byzantine religious art, where it belongs). It’s got a movie-geek rant about John Hughes flicks, and it’s got a tremendously affecting speculative description of a preteen Jesus learning that he’s the Son of God. It’s got Ben Affleck and Matt Damon dealing death in righteous judgment, and it’s got Alan Rickman and Linda Fiorentino jostling for sardonic supremacy. It’s got Jason Lee’s terrible villainous scenery-chewing, and it’s got more hilarious bug-eyed Chris Rock reaction shots than should be allowed. It’s got Alanis Morissette’s mischievous and delightful cameo as God. And for a Kevin Smith movie, it has more than its share of fine visual moments: the lovely opening sunrise over the Jersey Shore, a sublime wide shot of Rickman walking on the surface of a lake at night, and, of course, the Buddy Christ.
And in the end, it’s a richly human film about how we understand what is beyond humanity, and how we engage with those who try to tell us how we should understand it. With a shit monster in it. Believe it. Amen. Ross Langager