Spike Lee: Inside Man (2006) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: Inside Man (2006)

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A team of bank robbers, led by the enigmatic Dalton Russell, executes their plan in broad daylight with no clear avenue for escape.  Detective Keith Frazier arrives on the scene to make sense of Russell's seemingly suicidal plan.  But in the background, events are into motion to make sure both Russell and Frazier leave with their goals achieved and the truth buried.  Spike Lee directs Inside Man from a screenplay written by Russell Gewirtz and stars Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster.

Do you know who did thisThe first time I saw Inside Man it was probably about a year after it was released in theaters, and I didn't give it the credit it was due—I remember being generally unimpressed, not particularly surprised with the twist at the end, and feeling pretty flat throughout. So it was nice watching it this time around being able to walk back on some of those initial impressions. The movie is still kind of flat for me, but there's enough interest in the performances and the moments that work to subvert our expectations of the genre that it's definitely worth the viewing time.

The way it plays with genre is the most interesting to me, even if it doesn't always register these moments as outwardly and with as much punch as it could have—the burden of making a bank heist movie where the heist isn't meant to be pulled off is that you have to embed the suspense elsewhere, and I don't think Spike Lee is always successful here. I almost wonder if casting Clive Owen—who brings such a presence to his unnamed, mostly masked character—worked against the movie unintentionally. I think Owen's great, but the real suspense of Inside Man is watching Denzel Washington's Detective Frazier put together what's really going on with the “robbery,” and by drawing the audience's focus so strongly to both men it deflates Frazier's eventual discovery a little—we're still waiting for a reveal from Owen's character, and when we get it it's purely about the “how” of the heist, which we've already moved on from.

That said, this is still a really capable heist movie and it was interesting to see Spike put his stamp on something that fits the formalism of a more traditional commercial Hollywood film. There aren't a ton of really specific Spike moments here—we get double dolly shot, and New York factors in as a character itself—but he's definitely got a presence in how certain story beats are emphasized and delivered, if not as strongly in the visuals this time around.‏

Quiet interludeThere's an interesting meta-narrative going on within Inside Man that reflects Detective Frazier's evolution and Spike's direction.  I like that he starts off the film as a substandard detective and has to follow the clue trail literally before speculatively.  He's in trouble at the outset because of some negligence on his part and by the end becomes a good detective.  Spike reflects this journey by taking the standard heist film and slowly tinkering with it until it becomes more interesting.  At the beginning it's all wide-angle establishing shots and ominous soundtrack queues, then the more interesting flash forward interrogations come in with their noxious green colors and grainy stock, and by the end he's made a movie which denounces the evil capitalism hides.

But with Inside Man we have to also give more credit than normal to the screenwriter, Russell Gewirtz.  Gewirtz's style fits well with some of Spike's touches both good and bad.  He does well in writing situations which allow for multiple levels of commentary, but has more than a few groan-worthy lines of dialogue.  The "I violated section 34-DD?" joke is the exact kind of dialogue you picture someone being really pleased with when it was written at the time, but goes completely flat when it comes up onscreen.  The moments when Gewirtz's screenplay soars are in the small touches, like the multi-ethnic characters who inflict numerous microaggressions on each other, or the slow doling out of information so the audience feels as left behind as Detective Frazier.

Spike delivers on the more interesting aspects of the screenplay by creating a snapshot of New York which is still proud of its diversity but hasn't learned to trust foreigners again.  It makes Inside Man a different kind of post-9/11 film and an interesting counterpoint to 25th Hour.  If Monty Brogan (Edward Norton's character from 25th Hour) was the diseased byproduct of capitalism which seems less relevant than ever in a post-9/11 world, then Inside Man's Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) is the big bad that these systems are made to protect.  Spike shows how the little conflicts between people of different sexes, religions, ethnicities, and class keep them from recognizing the evils which literally towers over them.

I have more thoughts on the microaggression aspect of Inside Man - but I want to know if you had any similar realizations when you watched it.‏

Ghost in the darkness

Tiny Kyle CommentaryOne of the things that's interesting about the plan of the heist itself is how it literally whites out the faces of all involved—the multi-ethnic, very culturally diverse crowd that's shown in the bank pre-robbery is turned into a series of carbon copies in white masks and blue jumpsuits. It's one of those moments you mention where the necessities of the plot rooted in the screenplay translate really well to Lee's storytelling sensibilities.

It also makes way for an interesting sequence later, in which the police discuss potential outcomes of raiding the bank—Lee visualizes the raid in a quick action scene, but what the audience sees is simply a SWAT team gunning down possible hostages. A few of those killed in this segment are shown reaching for guns and shooting back, but the visual implication is that we can't tell who's who behind the identical uniforms of hostages and bank robbers. It works as an interesting counterpoint to the interrogations sprinkled throughout the movie, where individual suspicion is leveled on everyone without any evidence or cause.

I also like the way the very few overt post-9/11 references actually function as subtle clues to the larger crime to which the heist is designed to direct Frazier's attention. At one point we get a shot of the side of a building from the street with posters and graffiti covering it. It serves as a kind of variation on the “never forget” mantra, directly recalling the deaths of those in the World Trade Center—but what we (and Frazier) gradually learn over the course of the film is that one character has wielded all the power and influence his success in the U.S. has bought him to ensure that his previous deeds ARE forgotten.

While Inside Man isn't commenting directly on America's reaction to 9/11, it does undercut some of the sentiment with which we united as a country around attacks that so deeply affected us by pointing out ways in which our commercial and political system enables us to forget similarly destructive and evil actions against others.‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryI think you just stumbled on why Inside Man lingered with me for years after I first watched it.  Your reaction was subdued, but I first watched Inside Man by myself at the movie theater and I was impressed with all the subtle touches.  Looking through our past writing on Spike will quickly reveal that we don't use "subtle" as a descriptor very often.  But since Spike has to work within the studio system on a blockbuster we see some of his idiosyncratic touches scaled back a bit, but still at great service to the film at large.

His frequent cutaways usually highlight details that are tangentially related to the basic theme of the film.  The cutaways of Inside Man are front-loaded and a bit more expository than normal as the traveling robbers are cut with different sections of the bank exterior.  But here it's a nice double-purpose, both providing some basic visual puzzle pieces we can quickly put together and hinting at the larger system protecting Arthur Case.  I also like that the visual scheme for the interrogations was the same used for the Nixon flashback scenes in She Hate Me, providing another loose connection between the many cover ups between Watergate and the events of that unfortunate picture.  The inter-film dialogue continues in other subtle ways in Inside Man with an appearance of the malt liquor drink Da Bomb from Bamboozled in connection to Frazier's criminal roommate.  This provides yet another great intersection as Frazier learns to work within the system and manipulate it to his advantage without disgracing himself as a caricature.

Even the soundtrack, that source of great frustration and pleasure when it comes to Spike's films, is excellently used.  The way the low horns and steady beat of the cop-centered parts of Inside Man recall past heist films set in New York like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.  I also had to crack a smile when the soundtrack shifted to a gentle saxophone when Frazier calls his girlfriend as the visual shift of going from the streetlights and cold exterior of New York to the dimly lit and sensuous red interior of their apartment provides a bit of breathing room from the standoff.

Within Spike's filmography we can see how all the pieces of Inside Man align with what he's done before and how the script plays to his strengths, but it's also an anomaly.  Spike has only done two other big budget films since Inside Man - 2008's Miracle at St. Anna and his 2013 remake of OldboyInside Man succeeded because it was a studio production first and a Spike Lee film second so it entertains before it kicks in the signature Spike touches.  Miracle at St. Anna and Oldboy are unmistakably Spike Lee films first and studio films second, which means they are more artistically daring but really make the audience work to wring out any pleasure from the movies.‏

Listen to me carefullyTiny Kyle CommentaryI keep remembering the Oldboy remake for a second and then forgetting all about it again throughout the project, but I haven't seen Miracle at St. Anna. It is interesting here that Lee can slide so easily into the studio mode without losing his voice. Maybe the fact that Inside Man is a genre film—and therefore has an easily identifiable and recognizable lexicon of character tropes, plot moves, etc. to use when creating the broad strokes of the movie—helped enable those moments where he jumps in and adds his own touches

For instance, when Frazier confronts Jodie Foster's character to turn the tables on her and Case, dressed in an immaculate all-white suit, or when he tells the Sikh hostage who's chastising the police for New York's continued racism toward Middle Easterners, “Yeah but I bet you can get a cab”—Lee's adding his own commentary and visual flair to the already stable, recognizable genre conventions, so they're not disruptive, and the audience isn't required to even pay attention to maintain investment in the movie at large.

I'll have my own thoughts on specifically what does and doesn't work in Oldboy when we get there, but I'm curious to see how he's employing the tools of the studio system in Miracle at St. Anna with your point above that it bears his stamp first and foremost.

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryWhat we've been talking about dances around a mistake I noticed in my work recently.  It seems that when I've written about a movie I need it to floor me in some fashion or I'm left disappointed.  It seems quieter movies take longer for their cumulative effect to weigh in on my mind.  Inside Man is one such movie, where the different racial tensions and subtle artistic touches make it add up to a film which is more than worthy of its place in Spike's cinematic canon.

Inside Man is also a sad story of how the entertainment system seems bound and determined to keep Spike from producing any other movies.  Despite the worldwide success and general critical praise of the film a sequel never materialized.  Once again a case of art reflecting life, Spike makes a film about a detective who gets too good at seeing the truth and is quietly pushed to the side with a good job.  Spike makes some money to fund his personal projects and is never again given the opportunity to revisit this kind of success.

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Next, When the Levees Broke.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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