"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 20, 2011

My Favorite Movies - THE INSIDER and GLADIATOR

I like both films especially because of Russell Crowe, one of my favorite actors, and in both he plays a deeply moral, committed, and courageous man. Both movies are stories of heroism, and in both Crowe shows – more than any other actor – internal conflict. In THE INSIDER – based on a true story - Geoffrey Wigand (Crowe), a former executive at Brown & Williamson, has been fired because of his opposition to his company’s policy of refusing to acknowledge the addictive nature of tobacco and because of their enhancement of nicotine.

After some deliberation and at the persistence of Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), CBS 60 Minutes producer, he becomes a whistle-blower. Because of this and the escalating threats, physical, mental, and legal by the tobacco company, he not only loses his job, but his wife leaves him, CBS reconsiders and leaves him hanging and the powerful 60 Minutes segment never gets aired. Thus, all his loss and personal suffering has been for naught. The movie has a happy ending – CBS reconsiders, the segment is aired, and Wigand is vindicated.

From the earliest scenes, Crowe shows the inner conflict of Wigand – his honesty and revulsion at the dishonesty and criminality of Brown & Williamson vs. his deeply-felt commitment to and sense of responsibility for his family. He has few lines, and his face, expressions, posture, and demeanor tell all. In a great scene with the company director, played by Michael Gambon who increases the pressure on Wigand by narrowing his confidentiality agreement, Crowe expressed his indignation at this insult. “I always intended to honor the confidentiality agreement”, he says angrily but with self-control, hurt and shocked that Gambon suspects his honor and fidelity.

This is Crowe at his best, seething with righteous indignation but controlling what he says. When Gambon cynically and malevolently says he doesn’t believe him, thus the more restrictive legal agreement, Wigand finally says what he feels. “Well, fuck the confidentiality agreement, Mr. Sandefur, and fuck you!” Gambon is brilliant – he is unctuous but threatening and dangerous. He never raises his voice, makes cynical references to Wigand’s golf game, and in his dismissiveness, frightening.

In the scenes with his wife (Diane Venora), equally brilliant in her display of greediness and total lack of compassion, understanding, and support, Crowe shows his hurt, dismay, and disillusionment – but again with few words.

The scenes in Mississippi while he is deciding whether or not to testify against Brown & Williamson, show Crowe at an almost impossible level of stress – this is the moment when he has to decide whether or not to honor his personal ethics and honesty, or protect his family. He testifies and even more aggressive tactics by B&W begin.

The scenes without Crowe are equally fine. This is perhaps Al Pacino’s finest role as the producer who has equally high ethical and moral standards, stands up to CBS and helps to vindicate Wigand at the risk of great personal loss. Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace is perfect. He, too, grapples with questions of integrity, but only at the end when it is too late, does he act honorably. He says to Pacino, when the NYT and WSJ break the story on 60 Minutes’ capitulation to their corporate offices, “At my age you see things a little differently”, and goes on to state that he doesn’t want to be remembered for a callow response rather than a life of premier journalism.

THE INSIDER is a powerful story of right and wrong. Perhaps that is why I like it and THE HUSTLER, which I wrote about yesterday. Both are perfect.

GLADIATOR, of course, is a completely different movie - a swords and sandals epic which has great sweep and Hollywood effects; but it is Russell Crowe, again defending his honor, the honor of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) murdered by his son (Joaquin Phoenix), and his family. Added to this is revenge - Crowe, as The Gladiator, once the General of the Roman Armies of the North, but living the life of a slave after his attempted murder and escape never ceases in his desire to kill the Phoenix character which he does, but dies in the battle.

There is an intensity in Crowe's performance which is even more pronounced than in THE GLADIATOR, which is almost hard to believe. The grief he shows when he sees his family hanged is almost unbearable to watch. The hatred for the new Emperor who tried to kill him and who killed his family, the revenge he must have, and the love of his family all come together in Crowe's performance, and it is a masterpiece.

Joaquin Phoenix is perfect as the scheming, craven, weak, and frightening Emperor. He smothers his old father, the Emperor, and then, when he finds out who The Gladiator is, is ceaseless in his cowardly attempts to kill him. His best performance by far.

So, don't be put off by the swords and sandals, the gory gladiatorial fights and battle scenes. This movie is about Russell Crowe. See it.

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