The Insider (1999)

Al Pacino, playing the journalist Lowell Bergman, stands on a beach on a cloudy afternoon. He tries calling his contact, the informer Jeffry Wigand, who is living in a hotel room at this point in the story and refuses to answer him. Calling with the hotel manager, Berman tries to persuade Wigand to speak with him. As the reception falters, Bergman walks out into sea. He keeps talking to the hotel manager, getting increasingly angry with the silent treatment he gets from Wigand, until he literally screams, ‘Tell him these exact words, tell him to Get On The Fucking Phone!’.

about the film

The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999) is a great movie about whistleblowing and the less idealistic side of journalism. It tells the combined stories of the real-life characters Jeffry Wigand (the whistleblower) and Lowell Bergman (the journalist). Wigand, who gets fired from the tobacco company Brown & Williamson, comes into contact with Bergman who wants to push Wigand into sharing his knowledge on tobacco on air on 60 Minutes. The movie follows all the drama surrounding Wigand’s testimonial, including backdoor politics, journalistic manipulation, threats from the tobacco industry, family drama, etc.

Though it is a long movie, focusing more on dialogue than real action, it’s constantly engaging and thrilling and to me can be considered a great modern companion piece to the insanely great classic On the Waterfront, also about a whistleblower. It’s a thriller that thrills through it’s tense interactions between the characters and it’s a good example of how great spectacle can sometimes be created by just putting two people in each others space and let them go off at each other.

Mann & Spinotti

A lot of it’s greatness comes from the amazing cinematography by Dante Spinotti, an Italian cinematographer and regular partner of director Michael Mann. Or probably it’s best to say the greatness comes from their collaboration, as Spinotti admits in an interview for the International Cinematographers Guild, “When working with Michael Mann, movement and framing belong strictly to Michael Mann”. Mann, who is often described as a scientist in his approach to directing, worked out almost all the shots prior to shooting the picture. Still, it’s Spinotti who eventually translated Mann’s ideas into concrete images and so it’s in their collaboration that the film developed such a strong visual style.

All throughout the film they use subdued colors, real world locations, lots of handheld shooting and great widescreen compositions to give the film a sense of realness that feels completely devoid of any manipulation, studio production, or hollywood slickness. “We didn’t want to add an edge of perfection to the movie,” Spinotti says.

It looks raw, real and almost constantly beautiful. What I really like about the cinematography of The Insider is how it combines great dialogue scenes where we really close in on the faces, with wider compositions where the characters are often a small part of the image. Especially these widescreen compositions stuck with me. Spinotti uses the full width of the frame, often positioning characters at the very edges of the frame, creating a lot of negative space. It feels like a spaghetti western at times (maybe not surprising considering Spinotti’s Italian heritage) producing tense sequences,where a simple dialogue scene suddenly comes alive with tension and intrigue.

The Shot

My absolute favorite moment comes in the scene I described at the start where Pacino’s Lowell Bergman walks out into the sea. You have this great dramatic shot of him walking, the wind blowing against him, as he struggles for cellular reception. There is a looming storm in the background which adds to the dramatic tone, as well as this very muted color palette which drowns the shot in dark marine-blue hues.

It’s a tracking shot, probably filmed from a steadicam-rig, full of movement and drama. It signifies the tension Pacino’s character feels, standing on a edge of an approaching storm (the storm is a great metaphor for the dramatic point in the story). Russel Crowe’s Jeffry Wigand, who is sitting silently on the other end of the line, feels absolutely crushed by the networks’ decision not to air his whistle-blowing interview and he feels betrayed by Pacino’s Bergman who apparently could not solve the matter. Bergman, for his part, is basically alone at this point, having broken with his partner & friend Mike Wallace, and is on forced leave of absence.

It’s the bleakest part of the story, right before Bergman decides to fight back and eventually win the game with dirty hands. It’s over in a second, and it barely contains more action than simply some frustrated guys talking on a phone, but it’s dramatic highpoint of the movie. The whole scene is of course where the full drama of the story unfolds, and where all the disciplines come together (like the acting, the great soundtrack, narrative, etc.). But for my ‘One Shot’ I try to find the most iconic frame within such a scene, and to me this shot is it. It’s dark, melancholic, dynamic, full of tension and incredibly moody!


3 thoughts on “The Insider (1999)

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