How do you follow up a masterpiece like Heat?
You make The Insider.
Michael Mann has had one of the most storied arcs out of any Hollywood director.
He revolutionised television with Miami Vice, invented the modern anti-hero archetype with Thief, gave the world the definitive Hannibal Lecter movie (sorry, Jonathan Demme!), and somehow made a cyber thriller starring Chris Hemsworth boring.
But for all intents and purposes, Mann’s peak came in 1999 with The Insider.
Based on the true story of Jeffery Wigand blowing the whistle on the tobacco industry and the subsequent war of journalistic ethics at 60 Minutes HQ in New York City, Mann makes a 2 hour 40 drama more exciting and tense as a 300 million dollar superhero movie.
The Insider is a movie that could have easily fallen victim to the historical drama curse – Frost/Nixon, anyone? – and instead transcends it’s genre trappings.
And it’s down to the deft hands of Michael Mann.
Every scene feels like a gunfight or an explosion could go off any second, and that’s partially because of Mann working with his regular cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who was Oscar-nominated for his work on the film – one of seven nods the film received, losing all seven, but we’ll get to that later.
Mann creates a palpable sense of paranoia in every scene, the feeling that something could go wrong every second, despite the fact the film is based very much on a true historical story.
All The President’s Men pulls the same trick; you know the outcome of the story, but that doesn’t stop the film from being tense and gripping.
Mann wrote the script with Eric Roth, fresh off an Oscar win for Forrest Gump, and it brings out the duo’s sensibilities.
Mann’s trademark blunt dialogue is there, his brooding heroes contemplating whether what they’re doing is the right thing, and Roth keeps the script ticking along, making sure every scene has a sense of stakes and heft.
Yes, the film is 2 hours 40, but it needs every last second to tell the story it needs to tell.
A 100-minute version of this movie could exist, or a 2-hour version, but it wouldn’t be as good.
The film excels in its quiet moments, such as a simple conversation between Pacino and Crowe in a Japanese restaurant, Crowe seeing a flaming car just out of focus in a shot, or Pacino staring into the ocean in knee-high water while carrying a 90’s brick phone.
And of course, you have the one scene that’s present in every Mann movie; the one scene where the entire air is sucked out of the film and screamed into your face at full force.
That scene comes in a simple courtroom scene, set in Kentucky.
Again, a courtroom scene in a movie is typically nothing too special to write about.
But Mann deploys one of the top-class character actors at his disposal and lets Bruce McGill rip for a scene.
Like the bank robbery in Heat, it’s just Mann showing off why he’s the best in the business.
What does it say about the current state of cinema that this one courtroom scene has more explosivity than every major action film released in the last decade?
On the acting front, Crowe and Pacino are no slouches either.
Indeed, Crowe should have won the Oscar for this performance as opposed to his turn in Gladiator the following year.
The fact he lost to Kevin Spacy in American Beauty is baffling in hindsight, as is that film winning Best Picture and Director over this.
One of the big Oscar snubs of the all time is Christopher Plummer’s non-nomination for his portrayal of Mike Wallace.
If you have even a passing interest in American politics, you know who Mike Wallace is.
And Christopher Plummer gets him down to a tee, so much so a rumour persists to this day that Wallace used his clout in the entertainment industry to make sure Plummer wasn’t nominated, as Plummer does a fantastic job conveying the more odious nature of Wallace.
Al Pacino gets a lot of grief for over-acting, especially post his Oscar win for Scent Of A Woman, but Pacino is the engine of this film, bringing his gravitas and weight to every scene.
Whether he’s shouting his head off or having a quiet, reflective moment, The Insider is arguably the last great Pacino performance. (Of course, I’m writing this the night before The Irishman debuts, so who knows.)
The one mark against the film is that the female characters are underwritten, and made out to be the least intelligent people in the plot, which has always been a common through-line in Mann’s oeuvre.
That’s a minor quibble, however, against what is in this humble writers opinion, the best film of the 1990s.
It’s message in 1999 – corporations are bad, and journalism matters – is as relevant today as it was then. Even more so, arguably.
The Insider is available to rent in the Glucksman Library; seek it out, and you won’t be disappointed.