I don’t need your fucking status report, Serpico.
— Dalton (Clive Owen), Inside Man
The spiral staircase as Detective Frazier descends into the bowels of this corruption, these dirty people who’d sell their mother for money.
–Spike Lee, commentary track
“We’re getting’ old, Spike.” As Denzel Washington and Spike Lee reminisce about their years of collaboration on “Number 4,” included on the new DVD of Inside Man, their rhythm reflects a deep ease and inspiration. Their memories of the films they’ve made together — Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, He Got Game, and now, Inside Man — are specific (about preparation, shooting conditions, or actors they worked with, like the great Robin Harris). But the memories are also, inevitably, set in context. “Are we making progress?”, they ask. Lee notes the great actors who get work, but also a continuing lack of clout at the decision-making level. “We go to these studios, man,” he says, “The only black people we see is the guy at the gate.”
The documentary serves as a helpful introduction to the film, which is as close to a commercial-minded product as Lee is bound to make (his next project, a four-hour documentary on Katrina, premieres on HBO at the end of August). Written by first-timer Russell Gewirtz, the plot is mostly concerned with a generic bank robbery/ingenious caper (whose production is tracked generically in “The Making of Inside Man“). The irrepressible Lee and Washington bring to this business a kind of formal expertise — in look, performance, and tone — that makes it all seem edgier than it might have been on the page.
Spike Lee announces that he’s doing the commentary for Inside Man — an enthusiastic, thoughtful, often disarming commentary — on his birthday, 20 March. It’s just before the film’s premiere, and so he can’t know that it will go on to make $88 million, more than any of his other flms. For the opening scene — wherein criminal Dalton (Clive Owen) introduces his great scheme — Lee says he uses “one of my signature shots, the double dolly shot.” He notes such details throughout the commentary, as well as his decisions concerning framing and casting, the music and the allusions to movies and to the city. For the first scene set in the Manhattan bank, he wanted the about-to-be hostages to “represent the diversity of the New York City that I know and love,” while the criminals appear without faces, just torsos in medium shots, or, in long shots, with dark glasses and caps. They look alike.
In fact, New York — its diversity, energy, and improbability — is everywhere in the film. Not just in the sweeping-through-the-streets or creeping-along-the-sidewalks shots, but also inside the bank, inside the minds of the cops trying to solve the case, and inside the exit interviews they conduct, in tight, hot-white-lit shots. New York is outside and inside in Inside Man, but mostly, it’s the incisive focus, impetus, and consequence.
The detectives — hostage negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his partner Mitch (Chiwetel Ejoifor, whom Lee identifies, like everyone else, as the actor who knocked everyone’s socks off in Dirty Pretty Things; he also has a part in She Hate Me) — appear first at the station, oblivious to the robbery that you already know is in serious progress. Keith first appears on the phone with his cop girlfriend, promising her an evening with “Big Willy and the twins” (Lee actually explains what the term means, then says you probably knew anyway). Off the phone, Keith crabs about an Internal Affairs investigation into a missing $140,000. And then comes the call. The captain’s favored team is somewhere else, and so, as Mitch exclaims, he and Keith are off to “the show.”
The crime scene is already taped off, an area populated by shooters and uniforms, hulking vans and vocal gawkers. But even as the outside scene recalls Dog Day Afternoon (which Keith cites by name), inside, the robbers dress the hostages like themselves, shuffle them from room to room so they can’t get to know one another, and dig up a wall in the storage room. Dalton also beats a bank employee (Peter Frechette) who tries to hide his cell phone, behind frosted glass, as Lee chortles about the “joke” that identifies the whiter-than-white liar, his “Golddigger” ring tone: “Now he’s getting stomped!” narrates Lee. “Brooklyn style!” When the assault is finished, Dalton strides out of the room, leaving the body unconscious, his feet sticking out the doorway: “That reminds me of The Wizard of Oz,” laughs Lee, “Remember when the house fell on the wicked witch? That’s what we were after.”
Outside, Keith has to make nice with turf-protecting Emergency Services Unit Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe), still mad at him for some case they worked years ago. Among the bridges Keith will be burning during this adventure is a relationship with bank board chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer, about whom Lee says, “Please do not mention The Sound of Music around Christopher Plummer!”), who shows up to offer “support,” whatever he can do. When the cops send him away, Case sends a minion, a well-dressed, perfectly coiffed, excruciatingly intelligent fixer, Madeline White (Jodie Foster, whose legs Lee describes as “hellified”), introduced as she’s arranging for Bin Laden’s nephew to purchase a condo.
“Miss White,” as she’s called repeatedly, gets exactly what she wants when she wants it. (When the mayor calls her a “magnificent cunt,” Lee reminds you, “It’s a very ugly word,” and says he checked with Foster before including it in the film. “That’s worse than ‘bitch’ and ‘ho.'”) She tries to bribe Keith (their two primary scenes together, Lee notes, are comprised on single takes and slow push-ins, with the director just “stay[ing] out of their way”). She plays Case, knows exactly how to reach out to Dalton when she’s sent in to negotiate. And yet, she can’t quite solve the puzzle embodied by Case, which involves a special personal safe deposit box inside the bank. (The answer to this puzzle is Inside Man‘s least effective move, a cliché you’ll likely guess long before the film ends.)
Miss White’s presence highlights a couple of ideas that drive the film. One, the folks with money do pull the strings, but they don’t know (or want to know) the details of the wreckage they leave behind. This would be the purview of Keith, as well Dalton, who has his own sort of insight into how the system works. Matching wits with the cops, he admires Keith’s pluck and ingenuity, but presumes he’s smarter, as all villains must. He spends some time with a couple of the hostages, in particular, a small boy who plays a handheld video game, “Kill Dat Nigga.” “This is one of my favorite scenes, right here,” says Lee. One of many unscripted scenes (most others occur in the flashforward police interrogations of witnesses). “I really wanted to make a comment on this bullshit, this gangsta rap infatuation with violence.” (Lee says he’s unafraid to speak: “I’m not on Interscope Records, Jimmy Iovine does not own me.”) The violence exhibited by the robbers has nothing on what kids see and imagine every day in the city. Dalton voices his concern: “I’ve got to talk to your father.”
In between the figuring and plotting, the film flash-forwards to exit interviews with the hostages, Mitch and Keith cracking jokes, pressing them to confess their collaboration, jumping at or leaning into them to solicit responses. The exchanges — anxious, audacious, arrogant — is all about post-9/11 New York. Appearing in tight shots, the grainy hi-def digital exacerbating their complexities, the interviewees are traumatized or performative, sometimes both.
Tense, showy, and shrewd, the movie’s cleverest moments involve odd and telling details: the opening credits’ use of “Chaiyya Chaiyya” (Lee says he heard it in an Indian film recommended by an NYU student, and decided then and there that he’d use it in his next film), the white guy who recognizes but cannot translate Albanian language, and perhaps most energetically, Vikram (Waris Ahluwalia), the Sikh who resents being profiled as “Arab.”
Thinking he’s one of the robbers, the cops tackle Vikram, take his turban, then refuse to return it to him (“Arabs are the new boogiemen,” observes Lee, after explaining there is a difference between Sikhs and Arabs, “The Russians supplanted the Nazis, now it’s the Arabs”). When Keith and Mitch pull him into the diner they’re using for a headquarters and question him, he finally has enough. “Protect and serve, my ass,” Vikram grumbles, remembering being profiled at airports and on the street. “I’m fucking tired of this shit. What happened to my fucking civil rights? Why can’t I go anywhere without being harassed?”
Keith smiles, a little. “Bet you can get a cab though.” Lee laughs out loud. “Now, for those who don’t live in New York,” he says, “Here’s what that was about.” He goes on to explain that most cabbies are from Pakistan and India. “Here’s the thing: black people been here for 400 years, and these people just got here, and black men still can’t catch a cab.” Competing traumas, leveling oppressions, comparable determinations: it’s New York, up and down.