Monday, October 24, 2011

The voice of the voiceless


I’ve perpetually found myself bewildered at the divine and almost cinematic interventions that have inspired my actions in real life. Around five days ago, one of my dearest friends and an individual I consider to be my chief mentor in the professional sphere, celebrated her birthday. After much pondering, I decided to present her a book. Titled Half the sky, the work of non-fiction is a hard hitting look at human trafficking, which has now evolved into one of the world’s largest and most profiteering criminal enterprises. Of course, my friend buzzed me back a few days later to tell me that she loved the book despite its bleak, but simultaneously hopeful and redemptive nature.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, I remember catching a rerun of Michael Mann’s The Insider on TV. I must admit, the film has been one of those Hollywood features I have never had the patience to sit through completely – from the opening title card crediting the studios, to the closing title card announcing that the motion picture is protected by US copyright laws. I think the duration might have something to do with it. Clocking in at a massive 157 minutes, The Insider is just about 23 minutes short of facing off with an average Bollywood feature (purely with respect to duration).

Russell Crowe in The Insider

But there are other reasons, why I haven’t been able to catch The Insider in its entirety every time it beamed on TV. It’s because the film is an unrelentingly cerebral exercise in search of the absolute truth. The human mind, or in this case – the mind of the obsessive-compulsive movie-junkie, finds it a challenge to accept audio-visual cues that do not border on the make-believe. Goes double for the hyperactive and marginally attentive, meaning yours truly. Which is why, despite being formally aware of the fact that The Insider was playing on one channel concurrently alongside Gladiator masquerading on the other, I opted for the latter.

It took me almost two hours to realise during an ad-driven channel surfing impulse that a Russell Crowe double bill was in progress – on two different channels, of course. The smart people had obviously tuned in to Michael Mann’s docu-drama feature. The rest of us, smitten by Ridley Scott’s slick showmanship decided to meekly follow the English auteur’s swords and sandals epic. However, having seen Gladiator too many times already, I was only too privy to the crests and troughs of Maximus’ journey. And after a point, repetition had begun to take its toll. I tuned out and the channel-switch happened. It was a no-brainer. Russell's performance in The Insider was undoubtedly more nuanced than his role in Gladiator.

A still from The Insider

For those of you who haven’t yet caught up on the film, The Insider is the story of how America’s biggest cigarette manufacturers were brought down to their knees by a lone crusader – Dr Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe). Formerly a researcher with the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation, Jeffrey woke a nation up from its slumber when he went public with information that affected the lives of millions across America and the world. Accusing the tobacco companies of intentionally misleading the American public by concealing information regarding the addictive nature of nicotine and the ‘impact boosting’ techniques applied to make cigarettes even more addictive, Dr Wigand stirred up the proverbial hornet’s nest.

I couldn’t have been happier when the realization dawned on me that one of my favourite scenes from The Insider, two hours into the film was yet to come. I call this scene the ‘Wipe that smirk off your face’ scene.  It’s a magnificent sequence that transpires at a pivotal point wrought within a dazzling narrative. The scene in question involves the deposition of Dr Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe) at a court in the sovereign state of Mississippi. This one segment is hands down, a powerhouse in the legal lexicon of films. A lawyer, who is deputed by the tobacco company to silence Wigand, states that the confidentiality agreement signed by Wigand forbids him from disclosing any information of the company’s workings to the public. Of course, the public prosecutor played to monstrous perfection by Bruce McGill, has other plans.

Bruce McGill in a still from The Insider

McGill’s countenance – sheer bulk compounded by an alternating mix of docility and menace gives rise to one of the finest portrayals of dual personality on celluloid. With his commanding screen presence, lacerating gaze and formidable body language, McGill makes the strongest case for the need for more character actors in movies today. McGill is a man who owns the scene in every frame he appears. I won’t bother elaborating on his performance for it will fall short of describing his genius. You can take a look for yourself in the following link:


If you’ve finished watching that video, you might want to read further. Actually, you could do a lot better than that. You could go watch The Insider and come back to know where we’re headed next. Take my word for it – the film is explosive as hell and a must-watch for anyone who claims to have an iota of admiration for great movies.

Al Pacino stars as Lowell Bergman in The Insider

The movie features the legendary Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman, the producer of the CBS show 60 Minutes, who brings Dr Wigand’s testimony to the public eye. Just watching Pacino at work makes my heart skip a beat, or two. The parts featuring his powerful dialogues are worth revisiting over and over again. The unflinching energy in his eyes and his command over the medium of acting are testaments to his iconic stature in filmdom. With Michael Mann at the helm of affairs, Pacino is a ticking time-bomb that just can’t be stopped. He is accompanied by Christopher Plummer who has the coveted job of playing the interviewer who asks Dr Jeffrey Wigand the one question that inspired this blog.

Christopher Plummer in The Insider

I’m sure you’re wondering how long till I get to the bloody point, or in Donkey’s words from Shrek, “Are we there yet?” Well, here’s the answer in bits and pieces. Bear with me please, for I can assure you, the payoff will more than suffice for all the suffering. This post was prompted by a recent outing to PVR where I had the good fortune of watching the latest Rachel Weisz film – The Whistleblower.

Rachel Weisz in The Whistleblower

I had gone with great expectations, chiefly because I knew nothing about the film, except for its name and a tweet from a friend who subconsciously bullied me into watching the flick. The Whistleblower happens to be an expose of the human trafficking issue prevalent in Bosnia, where even members of the UN peace corps found themselves working hand in glove with the perpetrators. It’s a far cry from the image of peace forces escorting young children, widows and invalids to rescue camps while the country gets blown to smithereens. Rachel Weisz plays an American police officer deputed to serve in Bosnia on a tax-free assignment, to help restore order to the nation torn by a decade of violent ethnic conflict.

At a particular point in the film, a TV interviewer from BBC asks Rachel’s character, (the whistleblower of the title), if she would dare to repeat her feat and blow the lid off any such cases of human rights violation. And she responds by saying something on the lines of, “Would I do it again? Yes, no doubt at all.” I had to only hear those words from Rachel and it took me back to the question posed by Christopher Plummer to Russell Crowe’s Dr Wigand in The Insider, “Would you do it again?”

That, my friends, is the impetus for all this deliberation. The stories of the whistleblowers need to be heard. And they need to be heard now. I certainly have no intention of letting you off the hook so soon. If I pay my respects to one whistleblower, I might as well pay my dues to the other brave souls who changed the way I thought about cinema and what it was meant to do. So, switch right back to Rachel Weisz who seems to have an affinity for portraying characters that are activists and ball-breakers in their own right. Remember her portrayal of Tessa Quayle, in The Constant Gardener, adapted from the book of the same name by John Le Carre?

Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in The Constant Gardener

Rachel, in arguably one of her best roles, plays the feisty but doomed wife of British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes in one of his most affecting performances). Tessa is one of those people who can make you look back at your life and wonder, ‘What good have I done in all the years that I have been here?’ Her character is murdered right at the start of the film. And the ensuing narrative finds her husband Justin uncovering the conspiracies that his wife died trying to bring to the public’s knowledge. Justin Is pitted against the pharmaceutical giants of the West who are allegedly getting away with bloody murder in the name of research.

Rachel Weisz in a still from The Constant Gardener

The denizens of third world nations in the African continent made up for test subjects in experiments conducted by developed nations in the name of pharmaceutical research. Fernando Meirelles, the visionary director of City of God and Blindness brings this controversial tale to light and life. He expresses his gratitude in the closing credits to ‘those who died giving a damn’. It’s a deeply provocative and transformative film, featuring impeccable production values and a killer soundtrack. Music is something that The Insider also prides itself on, courtesy Gustavo Santaolalla, Massive Attack – do I even say anything more?

Julia Roberts in and as Erin Brockovich

As I near the end of this blog post, I’d like to bring your attention to one more film – Erin Brockovich, directed by indie-God Steven Soderbergh (you might like some sex, lies and videotape to go with that). Julia Robert plays the titular (guys, please leave the pun alone) character – a single, unemployed mom faced with the prospect of taking up one of the biggest public interest lawsuits in American history. With help from her mentor and employer, played by the indispensable Albert Finney, and a push-up bra, she goes about her business of suing one of the big power-generating companies in the USA.

Albert Finney and Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich

The electric company’s crime is their willful negligence of standard safety procedures resulting in a chain of health-related issues cropping up among residents living in the areas adjoining the company’s power plants. The company goes on to deny its involvement in the dispersion of the harmful compound hexavalent chromium into the water-table of the small town, despite the worsening health conditions of the citizens of these zones. Erin might look like white trash, but under her campy exteriors beats a heart made up of solid gold. Her grittier-than-steel willpower and unabashed resolve, not to mention, sexy as hell attitude helps her transcend her dire straits and deliver justice to the hundreds wronged by the corporate giant.

The film is rife with several quote-worthy dialogues just like The Insider (“What got broken here doesn't go back together again,” by Lowell Bergman) and The Constant Gardener (“Tessa wanted to be buried in African soil, not a concrete hole; nothing grows in concrete,” by Justin Quayle). But one of my favorites happens to the one where Erin Brockovich walks into a conference room with a box full of papers containing the signatures of the plaintiffs suing the power company. The signatures comprise several hundred sheets (600 or so odd signatures). The flabbergasted lawyer asks her, “How did you manage all these signatures?” Erin in her effortlessly cool candor replies, “I performed sexual favors for all the plaintiffs – six hundred blowjobs. And frankly, I am a little tired.”

2 comments:

  1. Your writeup on 'The Insider' got me to revisit this movie after many years. Keep up the reviews Bro.

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  2. @ Vinayak.. Danke Bro.. Glad you got to see the film.. It's a killer

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