He poses like a tightrope walker, though one who’s unexpectedly domestic and chubby. The left hand smoothly stirs a pot on the stove; the right arm, extended, hovers breast-high, as if to balance him. You might imagine that this bald, rotund man, dressed as if for the office, is on tiptoe as he stands in his kitchen. He smiles as he cooks, while sweet, glistening violins play on the soundtrack. Musical syrup, canned in the fifties: the aural equivalent of the old-fashioned cooking program that Hilditch raptly watches, imitating the chef’s every move.
This is our first glimpse of Hilditch (Bob Hoskins) in Felicia’s Journey, the droll, disquieting, enigmatic new film by Atom Egoyan. Inspired by, rather than based upon, the 1994 novel of the same name by William Trevor, the film represents a fresh departure in Egoyan’s remarkable career. At the same time, paradoxically, it’s a return to form.
For the first time, Egoyan has left behind his two national identities, Canadian and Armenian, and made a film set in someone else’s imaginative landscape. When he adapted Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan transferred the action from the northeast United States to someplace more familiar to him, British Columbia. In Felicia’s Journey–only the second film he has not written from scratch, out of eight features made so far–Egoyan has ventured onto Trevor’s turf, traveling to Ireland and the English Midlands.
For all that, Egoyan has also put himself back on his own turf. Read Felicia’s Journey, and you may conclude it’s about the homeless people who subsist in any big city, and how a young Irish woman joins their ranks. Watch Felicia’s Journey, and you may get the impression that this film, like others made by Egoyan before The Sweet Hereafter, is about somebody’s relationship to a loved one who exists only on videotape.
The French chef who so fascinates Hilditch is his mother, long dead (presumably) but still present to him as an image he can replay. In one of the funniest images in Felicia’s Journey, Hilditch goes so far as to share a formal dinner with her, watching Mum on TV through a pair of opera glasses. But there’s nothing amusing about Hilditch’s other viewing rituals. He also maintains a video archive of young women he’s befriended–strays, waifs, prostitutes. As the movie unfolds, you get the idea that these images are all that remain of the women; and the latest in the series is already within Hilditch’s viewfinder.
Her name is Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), and she has come from Ireland in search of the young man who got her pregnant and has now disappeared. A girl from a country town who apparently speaks Gaelic as her mother tongue, Felicia steps off the ferry in a pair of platform shoes–her fanciest pair, no doubt–as if expecting to bump into her lover at the next corner. Soon she learns there are many corners in the industrial Midlands; and while she’s trudging her way through them, she accepts a lift from this funny, old-fashioned man who drives about in a little green car.
It’s a good setup for a suspense movie, but Egoyan prefers suspension. Felicia is a person unmoored. So, too, in his way, is Hilditch. And so the movie floats between them, observing a relationship built on willful ignorance on the one side and insane manipulation on the other. Unable to know themselves, out of place in their societies, these two characters nevertheless form a temporary world of their own. That it will end in violence doesn’t much interest Egoyan. He’s fascinated to see it exist at all.
I was fascinated, too. Though it feels somewhat anecdotal after The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia’s Journey is made vivid by Bob Hoskins’s endlessly crafty performance and is kept a few giddy inches off the ground by Egoyan’s direction. It’s an eerily weightless trip across grave and troubled territory.
A pop quiz, courtesy of The Insider. Which is more dangerous to your health: A) being toted around blindfolded by members of Hezbollah or B) incurring the displeasure of an American corporation?
The correct answer, of course, is B–and if you think “corporation” in this context means only a tobacco company, you haven’t savored the ironies of The Insider.
The film, as you will have heard by now, concerns the relationship between Lowell Bergman, a producer for the CBS program 60 Minutes, and Jeffrey Wigand, the former head of research and development for the Brown & Williamson tobacco company. Fired in 1993, Wigand eventually became a source for Bergman, taping an interview for 60 Minutes in which he accused the head of Brown & Williamson of having perjured himself at a Congressional hearing.
B&W did not sit idly by while Wigand made these charges (which he repeated, for the public record, by giving testimony in a lawsuit brought by the State of Mississippi). Wigand had violated the confidentiality agreement he signed with B&W, and now the company brought down on him all the legal and financial pressure it could muster. There was extralegal pressure as well: B&W hired a public-relations consultant to smear Wigand in the press. His marriage had broken apart; reports of past misdeeds (no matter their veracity) were circulating; his life had been given over to lawyers. Parties unknown began sending him death threats.
That’s half the story. The other half is that CBS management pressured 60 Minutes to cancel its interview with Wigand. The full segment, as produced for correspondent Mike Wallace, aired only after Bergman himself became a whistleblower, telling the New York Times that the network’s business interests had interfered with its news reporting.
All this, and quite a bit more, is folded into The Insider, a well-cooked omelet of a movie that can keep you chewing for a long time. Among the ingredients: a persuasive indictment of corporate power, an absorbing double portrait of principled troublemakers and a surprisingly restrained job of directing by Michael Mann.
Best known for TV’s Miami Vice and such films as Heat and The Last of the Mohicans, Mann has earned a reputation for flash. But here, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Eric Roth, he seems to take on the qualities of the two main characters. His direction is angry, purposeful and proud of its own professionalism, and it has a great head for details.
You feel the effect immediately in Al Pacino’s performance. Pacino too often works solo, even when sharing the frame with other actors. (In Heat, he bullied everyone in the cast, with the unsurprising exception of Robert De Niro.) But in The Insider, Mann has him firmly in character from the start, when you see Lowell Bergman negotiating for an interview with the leader of Hezbollah. Even with his head invisible beneath a hood, Pacino gets across a sense of Bergman’s determination–or is it foolhardiness?–in pursuit of a story. Remove the hood, and this man would still be blinkered, since he won’t see anything but the job in front of him.
As Wigand, Russell Crowe sweats out a performance that’s as deeply committed as Pacino’s, and equally convincing. Shedding his young-bull image from L.A. Confidential, Crowe puts on a pair of wire-frame eyeglasses, some silver hair dye and about twenty pounds around the stomach. He waddles in this role. When thinking about what to say next, he blinks, as if caught in a car’s headlights. For all his pig-headedness, he’s as vulnerable a crusader as you could find. At times, you might think he’s cooperating with Bergman just to have someone to talk to.
Mann wants you to feel the full weight of Wigand’s choices; and so, to his credit, he makes a moment of indecision into the directorial high point of The Insider. Wigand has flown to Mississippi to give a deposition, only to be served with a restraining order from a court in his home state. Will he testify anyway? He has to stop and think–and Mann gives him time to do so, in a sequence that violates all the principles of forward motion. When he makes up his mind, the event passes without any cues to the audience to stand up and cheer; and even then the crisis isn’t over. Mann lets Wigand quietly stew in his decision during an exceptionally long ride to the courthouse, then keep stewing as lawyers wrangle over his right to open his mouth.
Mann uses everything he knows to keep this sequence going. He changes camera speed; he changes depth of field; he views the action from afar and circles it up close; he cuts as if he were an orchestra conductor performing Mahler. It’s a showy passage; but its whole purpose is to present the decision as part of the flow of Wigand’s life rather than as a detached moment. In that sense, the sequence is as unforced as the natural light that plays throughout The Insider, keeping you aware of the realities within the fiction.
There are realities, and ironies as well. Although it was produced independently by Mann and Pieter Jan Brugge (who also was responsible for Bulworth), The Insider is distributed by Touchstone Pictures, which is a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, which also owns ABC. Disney, as you know, has been accused of interfering with the work of ABC News. Now the company profits from a picture leveling the same charge against its competitor, CBS.
As a former pupil of Herbert Marcuse, Lowell Bergman might be amused to see how his muckraking lives on, only to serve a different set of corporate interests. The Insider is not just a critique of capitalism–it’s an example in itself of capital in action.