Inside Man: On the Outside Wondering if I Still Want to Look In
I’d Warn you About Spoilers but It was Rotten When I got There

The tagline for Inside Man reads: “It looked like the perfect bank robbery. But you can't judge a crime by its cover.” The movie, on the other hand, is almost entirely “cover.” Now, forgive me momentarily, as I wax nostalgic. This film, just one more in a steady line of Hollywood thrillers that are high on action and low on character development, is beginning to make me wonder what exactly Hollywood thinks it’s doing with the art of cinema. When I began this column, I can recall that there were movies of substance, films that could make me laugh, cry and, most importantly, think. Yeah, Inside Man has got me thinking but it’s not the good kind of thinking. I’m not thinking “Wow, that movie really made some good points; I never saw it from that perspective before.” The last movie to generate a thought along those lines was Goodnight and Good Luck (an excellent movie, by the way, that everyone should see). No, Inside Man has me thinking “What the heck?”, “What about nuance?”, and, my personal favourite, “That could have been a really intriguing film if only…”

If only the characters weren’t rejects from the “Colour New York Stereotyped” school of ensemble-cast writing. If only the film didn’t use any and every trick in the book to get us to sympathize for the well-spoken criminal (from demonizing the victim whose possessions are stolen by said thief to creating a bond of understanding between the aforementioned crook and the “me against the world of corruption” cop who tries to save the day). If only Spike Lee had concentrated a little less on the look of the film, which is, I must admit, the most impressive thing about Inside Man (and actually rather impressive, at that) and a little more on all those nasty loose ends that CLOUD THE ENTIRE FILM. If only Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster had paused for a moment in their flawless acting and wondered, as I did many, many times throughout the film, “But what is my character’s motivation?” If only I didn’t feel, at the end of the film, so manipulated into a corner without any clue how I got there. Yes, it was definitely a ride, but the scenery was so old and clichéd that only the fast pace kept me from getting bored. Instead, I got irritated.

I know that some criminals aren’t wrong, some politicians are corrupt, and the wealthy don’t always take the straight and narrow path to riches. I know that good cops have to be tough, that New York boasts not only a multicultural population but that this population has enough attitude to run a nuclear reactor and that there’s got to be at least one Jew in a bank at any given time. I knew all this before I saw Inside Man. What I didn’t know was that a thief could only be interested in the money but still be righteous if he is philosophical enough about his chosen profession, that the best way to spot a corrupt politician is to look for the man who swears incessantly in private, that a cop isn’t really good until he’s got an investigation hanging over his head (he’s innocent of course) and a completely gratuitous girlfriend who he can talk dirty to over the telephone (it’s okay, he loves her), that New York’s colourful blend of communities is easy to distinguish if you just remember that every stereotype is true except the one about the black guy being the bad guy, and that while kippas are a good way to spot the Jew, the best way is to look for the people who use the word “meshuga,” it’s supposedly a Jew’s verbal mastercard. All that, I learned from Inside Man.

Oh, and I also learned that the only truly unforgivable crime, that can never be excused, is doing business with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Apparently, you can judge a crime by its cover if that cover sports a swastika. While I would never argue that the Nazis aren’t the epitome of evil, I find it, at the very least lazy and at the very most, hypocritical of Hollywood to find some angle at which every other crime or criminal can be “misunderstood” and understood except for the Nazi or Nazi-sympathizer. Hitler does not have the monopoly on evil; he wasn’t that special. Furthermore, not every Nazi or Nazi-sympathizer was Hitler – unfortunately many were more self-serving than evil. I don’t know whether the crimes of genocide or benefiting from genocide or, even, the act of being indifferent in the face of genocide are crimes that can ever be forgiven. Such utter disregard for life, whether generated by hatred or selfishness, runs counter to the very essence of our society. However, I do think that Hollywood does not spend nearly enough of its allotted “Third Reich” space, exploring the issue of a repentant demon and I really couldn’t care less which side of the issue they came down on as long as it was intelligently done. At least that would get the conversations started.

Inside Man had quite the opportunity in its plot – the nature of a collaborator’s lifelong affair with imperfect attempts at personal redemption would have certainly gotten the audiences’ blood pounding and minds racing. There’s no action flick that can compare to the volatile question of who deserves forgiveness and who deserves to rot in the fire of eternal guilt. Instead we got a weird dose of Hollywood logic – if a man lets his friends die in the camps he deserves to have his diamonds stolen many years later. Firstly, if a man lets his friends die in the camps he deserves much worse, a punishment that I would imagine only God could do justice to. And, secondly, I would most certainly not trust the execution of the punishment to a thief who has no qualms about terrorizing innocent hostages and who really just wants the diamonds. Greed is what led the first man to do business with the Nazis so why is greed suddenly so much more acceptable simply because the second thief chose to steal from the first thief?

As much as I do love learning new things, I do prefer for these new bits of knowledge to be useful or, at the very least, not so ridiculously pointless. The best I can say (and please bear in mind that I say this through clenched teeth and only because I was raised to believe that every critique should have something complimentary in it) is that Inside Man is a really exciting movie. It’s a movie’s movie. The acting is top notch (which is to be expected when you look at the cast), the rhythm is enticing, and the story does pull you in. But to what end? The movie hints at war crimes – I wish it had gone further. It hints at rising tensions in race relations, post 9/11 – that could have been expanded. Inside Man almost asks a few very important questions: When is a crime justified? Does the moral status of the victim affect the moral nature of the crime? Do years of good deeds wipe away a horrible act? Should “murder out”? Does teshuva ever require public confession and if such confession does not occur, is the teshuva worthless? Are there really some crimes that are unforgivable? Inside Man almost asks these questions, but it doesn’t and that wouldn’t be so unacceptable if the movie admitted that it was just another action flick. Instead, it pretends to be intelligent and, even worse, a commentary on society. In point of fact, it’s not a commentary on anything but it is a glaring testament to how easily the public can be bamboozled and how lethargic Hollywood has become.

In the laws concerning a Bait Din, Jewish Court, the judges are warned against being influenced by the wealthy or the poor. A judge must consider a case as it stands without being influenced by reverence for the power of the former or compassion for the plight of the latter. In the same token, however, the past can be brought to bear in a case and a person’s reputation and character are considered. A biased court cannot stand but an uninformed court cannot judge. Inside Man is a movie that thrives on the sort of ignorance that a Bait Din would never allow. Issues and incentives are left out while the film weaves itself out of emotional smoke and mirrors. It’s a shame really because it had all the right pieces -- great actors, great filmmaker, great skeleton of a plot. The stage was most certainly set. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, Inside Man stalled. It looked like the perfect movie. But I guess Hollywood always was all about the “too good to be true.”

Dodi-Lee Hecht

© 2006 NISHMA