Insider, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe Powers revisits Michael Mann's masterpiece (updated with screencaps)
When Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) is fired by one of the largest tobacco companies in America, he agrees to become a paid consultant for Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a veteran 60 Minutes producer, who is working on a story regarding the alleged unethical practices within the tobacco industry. But, what begins as a temporary alliance leads to a lengthy battle for both men to save their reputations, and much, much more. As they soon find out, Corporate America will use all legal means at its disposal to save a billion-dollar-a-year habit. And as these corporate giants soon find out, Bergman and Wigand are honorable men, driven to smoke out the evidence. (From Touchstone’s official synopsis)
We all have filmmakers we don’t connect with but that we still respect for their unique artistic achievements. Personally, I’ve always felt guilty that I’m not a bigger fan of David Lynch, especially because he had such a profound effect on many of my favourite filmmakers. I’m less bothered by my general apathy towards Michael Mann’s output, but cannot realistically marginalize his skill or vision. I’ll argue the lacking impact of his supposed mega-classic Heat (it’s so bloated), but find plenty to enjoy about movies, like Thief and Collateral. All said, Miami Vice is the only one of his movies I’ve plainly not liked (never saw Public Enemies), Manhunter is my personal favourite, and The Insider is his masterpiece.
The Insider is even more interesting in the context of being the follow-up to Heat, because it’s a sort of thematic opposite that takes a subtler, psychological route with otherwise similar material. Heat was a deconstructionist approach to a silver-age crime flick that approached the intersecting lives of a cop and criminal. The Insider follows two more unexpectedly similar intersecting lives, but with more human-sized stakes. Mann’s films have always been textured by dramatic dynamic range, but I’d argue he never achieved the level of raw naturalism he does here without ever risking his normal sense of cool theatricality. At times, the contemplative staring off into space and melodrama sets the film off into a dizzyingly pretentious place, but the raw emotional power of the piece is never left lacking. It also doesn’t hurt that Mann and his cast took such pains to capture the ‘realism’ of the true story they based the film upon. Eric Roth, who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay with Mann, is a particularly frustrating Hollywood screenwriter. His most successful scripts tend to be over-stuffed, turning intimate portraits into unwieldy epics like Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Even his best work, like Munich and this film, tends to overstay its welcome a bit and features some awkward expositional dialogue (of which there is plenty in The Insider). The overlong problem lies at Mann’s feet more than Roth’s, however, since he has the ultimate editing power and has proven time and again that he has issues cutting his films down into palatable pieces. At the same time, there’s no mistaking the fact that both writer and director have taken a subject that could’ve been very boring and turned it into a reasonably well-paced, consistently engaging thriller.
After becoming a bit of a parody of himself in real life, it’s easy to remember there was a time when Russell Crowe had paid his dues and earned a place as a first-time Oscar nominee (he really had no chance against any of the other nominees, especially not the eventual winner, Kevin Spacey). Given time to re-examine the performance, Crowe really is absolutely brilliant here, though, and disappears into his role so naturally that it’s honestly hard to remember the baggage he brings to a role thirteen years later. Meanwhile, Al Pacino was coming off a series of scenery-chewing performances in Scent of a Woman (‘Hoo-haw!’), Glengarry Glen Ross (‘#%$@!’), Carlito’s Way (‘I’ll cut your f**ckin’ liver out!’, and Heat (‘She’s got a great ass!’). The ‘90s were both good and bad for him, because these roles were popular, but also sort of defined him as an unhinged goof-ball. With The Insider, he resituated himself as an actor that can ground himself in reality without chaining down his trademarked flair.
Disney’s Touchstone Pictures Blu-ray releases have been a mixed bag in terms of restoration, but at worst, they’ve still been pretty good representations of the source material. This particular 2.40:1, 1080p transfer is among the best of the bunch, but is also the most obviously altered aspect of the source material. It’s difficult even as a relative non-fan of Mann to choose any film as his most beautiful, but the extensive, diverse, and vibrant colour palette here really does sit apart from his more monochromatic features. He and cinematographer Dante Spinotti (who also shot Manhunter and Last of the Mohicans) follow through with a consistent basic colour quality, which blows out wonderfully lush greens, dynamic warm hues, and a underlying cool blue. However, if you compare this release to the DVD release, colours haven’t only been richened and made more violent, but there has been substantial ‘corrections’ made throughout. The original image was rarely ‘natural’ looking – it followed the neon hue themes set by most of Mann’s previous films – but this restoration has certainly taken liberties with the yellow and orange qualities of the warmer hues, especially during darker interior sequences. Flesh tones have been baked beyond what I’m assuming many fans will be comfortable with. Mann and Spinotti’s names have not been used in conjunction with this particular restoration as far as I know, so this definitely raises questions pertaining to the filmmaker’s ‘original intent.’ Beyond this, however, I’m still comfortable praising the clarity and strength of the colours during this release.
Digital noise is rarely an issue, since it’s only the natural grain that appears mixed into lighter areas; something I mark in the ‘favorable’ category, since it means there’s no excessive DNR enhancement (not that these Touchstone releases have ever really been guilty of that). Much of the film utilizes Mann’s typical hand-held close-up approach, which leaves details at the mercy of camera shake and stylized focus. The image is never entirely crisp, but details are plenty sharp from front to back depending on that focus. The close-ups are particularly outstanding to the point that you can probably count the pores on the actor’s faces, while the wider shots reveal a bunch of intricate patterns and textures that go missing on the old DVD version. The bulk of the film is also so consistently dark that standard definition transfers couldn’t really deal with some of the fine detail. Here, the darker scenes are actually among the transfer’s most stunning, thanks in no small part to some perfect black and white levels. Contrast levels are set so high that there’s very little in the way of gradation between shadows and highlights. There is some minor enhancement on the harsher contrasting edges (those tiny, white golf balls, for example), but nothing really unexpected from a digitally graded 35mm source. The lack of DNR scrubbing does lead to some minor print damage artefacts as well.
* Update: I can see now that I'm able to compare these caps to the DVD that the Blu-ray is darker, featuring harsher contrast and crushed blacks.
This Blu-ray features a solid but mostly low-key DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 version of The Insider’s Oscar-nominated sound design. The film opens with a brilliantly delicate credit sequence that layers montage sound and imagery in an effort to exact the feeling of Bergman’s blindfolded escort through Lebanon. The mix rumbles with driving music and the rev of a moving car, but doesn’t lose the elegant embellishments that sit apart from the basic ambience of the city that runs throughout the channels. Mann also creates horror movie levels of tension during some of the more paranoid moments with directionally enhanced scares. These exceptions aside, a lot of the sound does sit in the center channel throughout the film, which is fine, considering the intimate nature of the story and photography. It’s also generally a pretty quiet film made up specifically of dialogue. This centered stuff is clean and relatively dynamic, but does occasionally sound a little bit compressed, forcing me to turn up the receiver a bit louder than I’m used to. The mixed style/media approach to music is problematic from an aesthetic point of view (it sounds like an anachronistic patchwork quilt that often doesn’t fit the film), but works very well for this audio track.
The only extras here are a production featurette/EPK (7:10, SD) and a trailer.
The Insider is still a stunning motion picture experience and this is coming from a non-fan of most of director Michael Mann’s work. This first-time Blu-ray release is disappointingly bare-bones in terms of extras, but has been distinctly restored, making for a much sharper and more vibrant experience than the older DVD release. The catch is that the people behind the restoration have employed some colour-correction practices that may bother some of the film’s fans.
* Note: Thanks to Troy Anderson at andersonvision.com for the Blu-ray caps. The above images are taken from the Blu-rays and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 19th February 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Production Featurette, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Renee Olstead, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar, Michael Gambon, Gina Gershon, Colm Feore
Genre: Drama and Thriller
Length: 157 minutes
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