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March 26, 2006

The Inside Man

Bank heist films are often about narrative, about the ability of the authors of the heist, the bank robbers, telling one story while working to convince the detective, security guards, the police, and often the audience that they are telling another story. The best heists take place when the bank robbers use the conventions of past heists (or heist films) but depart from the normal script in one or two key ways. It's as if the author of the heist is directing his or her own heist film, complete with smoke and mirrors, just as a film director might use special effects. Spike Lee's latest film, the taut, witty thriller, The Inside Man (IMDB) gleefully plays with this notion of the heist as story while simultaneously telling a genuine New York story, something that Lee has done better than anyone in the years after September 11. What I also appreciated about Lee's film was its ability to encourage identification with both the perpetrators of the heist and with the detectives commissioned to bring the hostage situation to a safe and peaceful resolution, particualrly with Denzel Washington's Detective Keith Frazier.

The film opens with Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) directly addressing the camera, telling the audience, "I choose my words carefully," and then proceeding to give the audience (almost) everything they need to know to figure out the basics of Russell's plan, and while Stephanie Zacharek argues that "no matter how closely you watch, or how clever you think you're being, you'll never pick it up," I had a pretty good guess about where the heist and the story itself would go. But even with that knowledge--and perhaps because of it, in my case--I still very much enjoyed The Inside Man and Lee's playful tweaking of past heist films and the classic New York films, such as Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, to which his movie pays homage. We also know that most, if not all, of the hostages survive, as we watch Frazier and his partner, Det. Mitchell interrogate people in flash-forwards that anticpate what will happen.

The basics of the heist: four people, dressed as painters, come into the bank at the same time. They use the equipment they carry to barricade the doors while another uses spotlights to blind the security cameras making it all but impossible to see what is happening. The robbers then force their hostages to give up their cell phones and to strip down to their underwear. They make one other request, which like Zacharek, I won't reveal. At this point, the robbers and the police and detectives, led by Frazier, Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe), set up communications, with the robbers setting their plot in motion (and here, I think Roger Ebert's review seriously underestimates Lee's film, with Ebert asking at one point, "Did they want to be trapped inside the bank?" Yes, they did. The success of their heist depends on it. In fact, Dalton has accounted for every step the police will take. He knows that accepting the offer of food (pizza) from the police will come with a specific price and anticipates that well in advance. He knows that releasing a Sikh hostage with a message wrapped around his neck will provoke a specific, gut response from the police, one based on mistaking the hostage for an Arab and a potential terrorist. In fact, several sequences in the film--including a rash decision by Captain Darius--might be seen as an implicit critique of the increase in police surveillance in New York, discussed here by James Wolcott, with the heist itself relying on and therefore foiling the surveillance apparatus.

But Lee's film, based on a script by Russell Gewirtz, layers on a third plot, one that complicates Frazier's ability to capture the bank robbers. The owner of the bank, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), seems far more concerned about protecting certain valuable items in the bank than in the money in the bank's vaults. To that end, he hires the mysterious and aptly named Ms. White (played with relish by Jodie Foster), a "fixer" to the wealthy and influencial, to protect his interests, which may or may not correspond to those of the police. And as with most heist films, much of the suspense derives from the knowledge that each character has at a given point in the film. I won't reveal the specifics of what valuable objects Case wishes to protect, other than to say that the objects deeply indict his character and the means by which he is able to obtain his wealth. Case's bank itself--with its opulent, art deco interiors, and the majestic friezes and facades oustide--also seems to function as a character in the film, setting in contrast the street itself, often identified with rapid pans, crwods, and movement, with the vast interiors where we encounter Case and White.

While many observers have noted that The Inside Man appears to be the "least personal" film that Lee has made, I'm not sure that's the case. It's certainly a departure in that Lee seems to be working with a bigger budget, but the post 9/11 New York setting is crucial to the film's narrative and provides a basis for the interactions between characters, with Det. Frazier gently chiding a police officer for using racial epithets while the police themselves are on guard against another terrorist attack, as suggested when they mistake a Sikh man for a potential terrorist. Perhaps his most compelling critique, however, features Dalton, the author of the heist, registering horror at a nine-year-old boy playing a Grand Theft Auto style video game on a Gameboy featuring disturbing depictions of black-on-black violence. Ironically juxtaposed against the bank vault full of money--the two are even sitting on bales of cash--Dalton tells the boy, "I'll have to talk to your father about this."

I think Zacharek is right to fault critics who will fail to regard The Inside Man as one of Lee's "great" films. In part because of herreview, I couldn't help but think about the vastly overrated Crash, with its muddled message about racial tolerance, and while Lee's most recent film takes a much lighter, less preachy touch, it offers a far more observant portrait of New York's melting pot of ethnicities and cultures and the conflicts they face in a post-9/11, post-Giuliani New York City.

Posted by chuck at March 26, 2006 9:20 AM

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This is the best review of the film I've read yet. I'll be seeing it regardless - I never miss a Spike Lee joint - but now I'm far more excited about it.

Posted by: dvd at March 26, 2006 4:09 PM

Thanks dvd. I hope the film lives up to the review. Some people have complained about "implausibilities" (given his story arc, the Christopher Plummer character would likely be in his 90s), but given Plummer's acting talent, that's a pretty trivial implausibility in my opinion.

Posted by: Chuck at March 26, 2006 5:16 PM

I just typed and then delted a lengthy discussion of the film. I want so much to write about it right now, but I'm going to wait and see it again and take proper notes before I do. I absolutely agree with you that this is in no way an impersonal film. Spike Lee addresses all of his agenda (the persistence of racism, black representation in popular media, etc.), but here he does it between the lines. And in many ways it's more effective than in much of his work because it is subdued, "inconsequential". As it is in Real Life.

This is clearly a paycheck movie. But I have this image of Lee as the western hero, the supercop, the master criminal saying, "I'll make your movie. But I'm going to do it my way." Never before have I seen a genre film that makes so few compromises!

I love, love, love this movie. I apologize for the lack of substance in these comments. Right now I am full of enthusiasm, but I want to make sure to do this enthusiasm justice...

Posted by: AHorbal at March 26, 2006 8:19 PM

It's definitely a paycheck movie, and it looks like it'll be a decent one for Universal, too. In terms of Lee's treatment of race, I keep coming back to Stepahie Zacharek's comparison of The Inside Man with Crash. I think she's right to note that Lee deals with race in a much more nuanced fashion. Looking forward to your longer review.

Posted by: Chuck at March 26, 2006 8:35 PM

I agree: great review. I saw this on 42nd Street on Friday night, and this was a fun movie to see in New York City. The audience ate it up.

Posted by: Alex H. at March 26, 2006 8:36 PM

Alex, I hadn't really thought about how this might play in New York, but I bet that was a fun audience.

Posted by: Chuck at March 26, 2006 8:38 PM

I agree with your review as well, Chuck. Not being a New Yorker, I felt like I was missing out on some of the references--which would make seeing it in the city a great experience. But, generally, there was a lot going on politically that you don't need to be an "insider" to pick up on. The treatment of identity and the failure to ever really fix what it means to be a criminal, a hostage, a good guy, and even an Albanian are really interesting. Although I felt Lee still maintains the rigid division between male (Denzel's Sam Spade-like character) and female (his devoted girlfriend who is waiting for him at home). Perhaps Foster's character problematizes this division--though I'm not sure that's the case. And with the nod to at least one of his other films, Bamboozled (the bottle of "Da Bomb" in Dalton's girlfriend's brother's hand at the end), I'm still thinking about the film's layered references.

Posted by: Jennifer at March 27, 2006 1:17 PM

Yes, I think the film complicates identity nicely. I've been thinking about the treatment of gender in the film, including the camera's obsession with Kim Director's cleavage and, more crucially, the position occupied by the Jodie Foster character. I'm not sure that she problematizes the division, either. In fact, her position as a "fixer" might even reinforce those divisions.

I missed the reference to Bamboozeld, whihc I haven't seen in about five years, but definitely a nice touch of intertextuality, one that extends Lee's unique ability to engage with issues of representation.

Posted by: Chuck at March 27, 2006 1:49 PM

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