David Fincher had helmed innumerable commercials and music videos (including some “peak Madonna” videos like Express Yourself and Vogue) before making his directorial debut in the Alien franchise. Which was fitting because that series served as a testing ground for budding auteurs like Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Jean-Pierre Jeune, and even Paul WS Anderson.
However, Fincher notoriously went through the ringer with the studio and alienated (yes, pun intended) fans of the previous more “crowd pleasing” entries in the franchise. In the aftermath of his tumultuous Alien installment, he seemed destined to be a “music video turned feature film” director that didn’t break through. Until his follow up film, Se7en, announced his arrival as one of the most important filmmakers of his generation. On the surface Se7en is a pulpy serial killer thriller, one of the many that came in the wake of Silence of the Lambs (and was intended for a direct-to-video release before Fincher became involved and Brad Pitt signed on). The brooding film is elevated by some expert filmmaking that is truly next level in its execution and falls into what I call the “Texas Chainsaw syndrome” where if you ask most moviegoers they’ll remember the film as being this grotesquely gory and violent affair. But in actuality, there’s little onscreen bloodshed and most of the intensity and aura of violence is brought about by a director who is playing the audience like a fiddle.
But even with this triumph, nothing could prepare the world for his fourth film, Fight Club, which despite the unfortunate appropriation of its themes by some “keyboard warriors” stands as a very important film because it’s a time capsule/ snapshot of the era at the turn of the millennium. It articulated the frustrations of an entire generation and stands only behind The Matrix as being the definitive film of ’99- the “best year in movies”. Fincher of course would make other great flicks like Zodiac and Social Network, they might even be “better” (and comparatively less divisive- even though they have their controversies). But I think Fight Club is his ultimate masterpiece. It’s a film that gets under your skin and makes one question the mental prison we’ve created for ourselves. It’s not an easy film to come to terms with. And sometimes “good art” should piss us off.
And Fight Club pissed people off. Critics like Roger Ebert in his two star review said it glorified violence and some even went so far as to claim the film held a pro fascist/ misogynist sentiment. Rosie O’Donnell caught an early premiere screening then got on her (at the time) popular talk show and railed against the film for being both disgusting/ disturbing and notoriously spoiled the twist ending so as to deter people from seeing it. Some felt the film fetishized male aggression and eventually brought about real life fight clubs– even greasing the wheels for the rise of MMA fighting- now one of the most popular (blood) sports in the world. There’s even evidence that it inspired real life acts of Project Mayhem (i.e. home grown terrorism).
But despite not “being a hit”- Fight Club quickly found its audience via cable/ video (anecdotally, I’m going to say mostly in college dorm rooms) where it was discussed and debated with theories proliferating on internet chat rooms and message boards. Many saw the film as a battle cry against the corporate fueled consumerist society that was making us all shallow, self loathing, and weak willed. Even though the film’s “Tyler Durden lessons” were co-opted by actual fascists and misogynists many interpreted Fight Club as being anti all those things and is ultimately a denouncement of toxic masculinity. There’s even readings that Fight Club is a “gay rom com” (it’s described as such by the novel’s author and screenwriters) and is rife with homoerotic overtones, multiple “film splices” of male genitalia, and the aforementioned fetishization of clashing bloody/ sweaty male bodies and the overwhelming stench of machismo (with the lingering shots of Brad’s abs/ “deep v” helping fuel this theory). In a way, Fight Club is like a Rorschach test where everyone is going to have their own takeaway and no matter what direction you go in it’s bound to be divisive to how someone else saw the film.
Fight Club was released November 11, 1999 and though tonally/ narratively different it holds a lot of parallels to Being John Malkovich (released a month prior and which we reviewed in October). In my Malkovich review, I pointed out how both films were part of “cubicle cinema” (a collective of movies from that year that also included Office Space and The Matrix). In these films, the protagonist represents the disaffected and forgotten “everyman” (meaning the 20/ 30 ish year old white guy, played by Edward Norton in this case) who tries to break free from the oppressive corporate work environment and effectively becomes a hero in their own narrative by “sticking it to the man” (or “fighting the machines” if you will). Of these films, Fight Club is the most angry and impactful. I think part of why people think it’s pro fascist/ violence is because the film makes a persuasive argument to “tear it all down” because a lot of how America is structured just plain sucks. The game is indeed rigged by the rich and corporations, leaving us (regular folk) in increasing debt and scrambling to fill the hole in our souls with material goods. It’s “white male resentment” which is perfectly summarized by the Id of the “everyman” Tyler Durden, Brad Pitt, in a passage of dialogue that can pretty much serve as the film’s thesis:
“ Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off. ”
And honestly after going through the Great Recession it’s hard not to feel a bit of satisfaction when all the skyscrapers and banks/ corporate lenders get blown up real good at the end. But what is retroactively less enjoyable is the scene where the “everyman” tells his boss that he’s going to get a rifle and (at the time would be called) “go postal” on his coworkers. A scene that today plays all the more disturbing, especially when you realize Fight Club came out the same year as the Columbine Mass Shooting, the first modern example of such an event that just kept getting worse in the ensuing years. Today it seems that Fight Club was the “canary in the coal mine” about a whole generation of (white) men, a group that would produce some of the biggest struggles that we are now facing in this country, from mass shootings to “fascist flirting“ insurrectionists. The whole film is “playing with matches” by tapping into a genuine anger and self loathing that has proven the potential to be very destructive to all our lives.
Final note: there’s solid/ charismatic performances from the three principals (Norton, Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter) but for my money the MVP of the film is (surprisingly) Meat Loaf who represents the true beating heart and the conscience for the “everyman”… We’re all Robert Paulson.
Michael Mann likes making movies by and (largely) for dudes. This is not to say audiences without a Y chromosome aren’t able to enjoy his films, but as an artist that is clearly where his interests lie. Mann is mainly known for his forays in the crime genre, dramatizing the lives of both cops and criminals, and more often than not paints them as the most charismatic and coolest cats in the room. But it’s not just surface level admiration, Mann seems genuinely interested in the relationships between men, especially those on “opposite sides of the law”. After coming onto the scene as the creator of Miami Vice (a “buddy cop” TV series drenched in 80s cool), then directing some neon noirs (Thief and Manhunter), and period action (Last of the Mohicans), his masterpiece is probably the Pacino v. DeNiro crime epic Heat. After that film, Mann would mostly double down on tales involving two guys either working for or against a common goal (i.e. Collateral, the Miami Vice movie, Public Enemies, and today’s film The Insider). Essentially these are “male love stories” (not in a homosexual sense) that still feel transgressive and revelatory by acknowledging that “macho men” are sensitive beings, have feelings, and can have platonic relationships that are deep and meaningful. And in that regard, The Insider (released November 5, 1999) is Mann’s most touching “male love story”.
Coming out right after Heat, Mann was at his peak powers as a filmmaker and The Insider marks a key turning point in his career. The film engages in a lot of experimentation with cinematography and editing, but after this film Mann would continue to explore new methods of filmmaking with digital cameras, reliance on “dirty” location audio, and story structure that wasn’t necessarily tethered to normal three act “save the cat” type of studio templates. The Insider represents a master achieving greatness in his field and then from here on out he would continue to try and break new ground and evolve as a filmmaker, even if his methods would throw some audiences off and make his films seem less “perfect”.
The two men at the center of this particular love story are played by Al Pacino and Russell Crowe and the performances are uniformly excellent. Crowe was coming off of his attention-getting supporting turn in L.A. Confidential, but right on the cusp of becoming a full blown movie star with the following year’s Gladiator. His performance in The Insider is very intense as he plays a regular guy full of pent up frustration and frazzled nerves who is struggling with the choice to either listen to his conscience or fulfill his responsibility to support his family. Pacino was at the height of his movie star powers, in an era defined by “big” performances full of yelling and scenery chewing. In fact, he would have one such “Scream Pacino” performance in the football epic Any Given Sunday released the following month in ’99. But, The Insider is Pacino at his most subdued, touching, and thoughtful since the early days of Panic in Needle Park, Scarecrow, and The Godfather.
Now even though this isn’t a Michael Mann “crime film” per se- the tone of The Insider often feels constructed to be a crime/ paranoia/ courtroom thriller. Which I think works in the film’s favor or else it would become a dry adaptation of a Wikipedia article. Crowe’s character has information that would reveal that the tobacco companies are a bunch of dicks knowingly addicting/ killing the populace for profits. Pacino plays a producer for 60 Minutes who wants Crowe to reveal this information to the public even if it violates his non-disclosure agreement. But both men realize that “doing the right thing” isn’t easy. Crowe eventually comes to the conclusion that as a scientist his purpose is to help people and by revealing this information he can make a positive change, even if it means his career and family life get upended. But after Crowe makes the personal sacrifice and does the interview, corporate politics at ABC television attempt to suppress the information until Pacino has to step up and realize that his role as a journalist is to reveal the truth no matter the cost. In a world that Pacino at one point describes as “running out of heroes”, they are two lone men fighting the good fight together. And they each help the other to find the courage and the emotional support to carry through with their convictions. It is ultimately an inspirational story that shows that we can all make a difference if we decide to do the right thing and not let the “bad guys” win.
Final note: Pacino and Crowe are great, but the MVP of this film for me is Christopher Plummer playing real-life 60 Minutes anchor Mike Wallace and represents the second “male love story” of the film as he too struggles with his role as a journalist and how it affects his relationship with the 60 Minutes producer played by Pacino. Ultimately they “break up” but yet they still “love” each other… it’s heartbreaking.