This week I also decided to go with two dramas thematically similar (the backroom politics of network television news) but very difference in style and craft. And for the first time since starting this project, I loved them both. So, lights, camera, your review in 3, 2, 1…
The Insider (1999) Directed by Michael Mann, Written by Eric Roth & Michael Mann
Starring Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, and Philip Baker Hall
7 Oscar nominations including Picture, Director, Actor (Crowe), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Sound
Network (1976) Directed by Sidney Lumet, Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, and Beatrice Straight
Won 4 Oscars including Actor (Finch), Actress (Dunaway), Supporting Actress (Straight), Original Screenplay; nominated for 6 more including Picture, Director, Actor (Holden), Supporting Actor (Beatty), Cinematography, Editing
The Insider is a masterfully crafted political thriller about Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe), a Louisville tobacco executive who is approached by 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Pacino) into being in an expose on the perjury of tobacco executives who swore in front of Congress they had no knowledge of cigarettes harmful effects. The film, based on a Vanity Fair article about the real-life incident, looks at the smear campaigns, corporate blackmailing, and death threat terrorism used to shut up Wigand. It is edge-of-your-seat fascinating from beginning to end. The Insider scored big with Oscar nominations–7 total–but ultimately was overshadowed by American Beauty, in all the big races. But what a fantastic also-ran. Now, I do take some issue with Crowe being nominated over Pacino, who gave a FAR more intense, nuanced, and developed a performance than Crowe–who is fine, but rather droll. Also sadly snubbed was Christopher Plummer who gives an incredible performance as Mike Wallace. It is an extraordinarily rare example of a person who plays a public personality with both note-perfect voice and mannerism mimicry and a full, motivated character. All in all, The Insider is a formulaic Hollywood take on the issue, but boy does it use that formula well.
Network is a completely different animal. The first hour is a taut, insider network television drama with a canned newscaster, part warrior for the third estate–part self-aggrandizing narcissist. This half of the film ends with the now famous monologue beckoning his viewers to get up from the television and shout out their windows “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore”. The spirit that the film captures was haunting to watch in 2011, as much as political zeitgeist mirrors that of the Ford/Carter-era 70s. Then comes the second half, a complete character destruction that holds a painful mirror to the selfish desires that cripple ideology. The first hour is wonderful, the second brilliant–peppered with monologues that seem straight from Albee or Beckett, Chayefsky’s script she be taught in American literature classes beside Death of a Salesman and Catch-22. As for the Oscars, it’s surprising to me that this was a film embraced by the establishment Academy–though I’m certainly glad they did. Dunaway and Finch’s wins are well-deserved and give me more faith in the institution that awards Sandra Bullock and Jeff Bridges these days. Holden is also a phenom, but sadly has the less juicy role to work with. Beatrice Straight’s win seems an odd decision in retrospect–the briefest role to ever win an Oscar, Straight is on-screen for barely five minutes–though her monologue is pure Oscar-bait if it ever existed. Despite it’s 3 acting and screenplay wins, the Academy went with the uplifting Rocky–which is understandable and predictable, oftentimes we don’t want a harsh mirror but just need a knock-out win.