b b b c
cinetext - film & philosophy  
home mailinglist cinetexts cinelinks filmbooks b ISSN  

This text has been submitted as an original contribution to cinetext on May 12, 2006.

Reparation: Inside Man, a film by Spike Lee.

On knowledge and pleasure, right and wrong

Inside Man

by Daniel Garrett

“However much value we may ascribe to truth, truthfulness, or altruism, it may be that we need to attribute a higher and more fundamental value to appearance, to the will to illusion, to egoism and desire. It could even be possible that the value of those good and honoured things consists precisely in the fact that in an insidious way they are related to those bad, seemingly opposite things, linked, knit together, even identical perhaps. Perhaps!”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” Beyond Good and Evil

“I believe in entertainment, don’t you?”

—Andy Warhol, “Andy Warhol, Movieman,” I’ll Be Your Mirror

Beneath every great fortune is a great crime is one legend. Two wrongs do not make a right is another, and this second is an old saying that even children repeat, but it is easy to wonder if the lesson has been learned after watching director Shelton “Spike” Lee’s film Inside Man, written by Russell Gewirtz, and starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Christopher Plummer.

Writing in The New York Times (March 24, 2006), film critic Manohla Dargis said that “the great and maddeningly unreliable Spike Lee,” with the film Inside Man, has delivered “his most polished and satisfying work in years, with none of the raggedness that sometimes mars even his best intentions.” One’s enthusiasm might be slightly chastened by a rare dismissal: “Inside Man is a fairly routine heist drama and a never especially believable puzzle film,” declared William Arnold, the movie critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (also March 24, 2006, the day the film opened).

Inside Man begins with an uptempo east Indian song, and the sound alone tells us that this will be a different kind of Spike Lee film, more cosmopolitan, and it is. On the screen as Dalton Russell is Clive Owen, and we see his face large before us, speaking to us, asking us to pay attention. He speaks of being confined in a small space that could be described as a prison cell (he does not say that it is a cell), and he says that he committed a crime “because I can.” An old truck—I think dark green—with a sticker that says Perfectly Planned Painting on its side picks up various crew members dressed in white, and the camera moves from those pick-ups to various iconic statues and public monuments and the American flag, amid the landscape of New York City.

“When Lee films the buildings of Lower Manhattan underneath Inside Man’s opening titles, he does so as if he were filming the Egyptian pyramids or some other towering monuments of an ancient civilization—everything feels monolithic and monumental,” wrote LA Weekly’s Scott Foundas (March 22, 2006), in a review available on the internet. (Foundas called the film Spike Lee’s “most purely exciting and enjoyable,” having also thought the dialogue “razor-sharp” and the actors “electrifying.”) Foundas perceived the film as “grand and operatic”; and it is true that what is shown in the film are some of the elemental forces in the city, working with and against each other, with certain individuals distinguishing themselves by their energy, intelligence, and social effect.

We, through the camera’s eye, enter a busy downtown Manhattan bank, the first branch of a prestigious financial empire. There is a talkative woman on the phone with a friend, describing how she might charge lobster to her boss’s credit card and complaining about the young man who is in front of her and who keeps looking at her and her prominent breast. She is contemplating a small theft; and she is objecting to questionable manners. Meanwhile Clive Owen as Dalton Russell is deactivating cameras with a hand-held (infrared) flasher. Smoke bombs are released by Russell and his crew, and he and his crew begin to threaten and direct people—Get on the floor, don’t move. A police officer outside the bank sees smoke, and when he goes to the door one of the robbers points a gun at him and tells him there are hostages inside: the drama has begun. Will the police negotiate or break into the bank?

Inside Man (Imagine/Universal 2006)
Inside Man (Imagine/Universal 2006).

Denzel Washington as Kevin Frazier, a detective sitting in his office, is having a conversation by phone with his live-in girlfriend, and he says, “Baby, I’m fighting for my life right now,” mentioning the missing money from a case involving a check cashing place. Off the phone, he mentions to his partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) that his girlfriend’s brother, a career criminal, is living with them, a situation that sounds as unpleasantly complicated as he makes it and that raises questions. Why would a detective allow someone like that to live with him, in light of how he might be compromised, or might be seen as compromised in the eyes of others? Why would his girlfriend, who seems to be a police officer? Is it merely family obligation or guilt over their divergent paths?

“Christmas came early,” says Frazier’s boss, as he gives Frazier and Mitchell the unfolding bank robbery case. Keith Frazier and his partner Bill Mitchell are surprised, as Frazier is a bit under a professional cloud regarding the missing money in the other case. Bill Mitchell (Ejiofor) gives Frazier a pep talk about the crime perpetrators in the bank, ending with “just picture them in their underwear,” to which Frazier says, “How about in orange jump suits?” Rather than imagining the robbers at their most vulnerably human, he is imagining them being punished for their crime.

There are fast-moving close-ups, from diverse angles, with some of them (intentionally) shaky, of the police securing the area outside the bank; very effective mood-setting: sudden danger contained by professionalism, and the excitement of chaos opposed by order, though the outcome remains unknown. We see the fire department and news reporters as well as the police force, and a crowd gathers: the society’s applicable institutions have come and so has a part of society. “Spike likes to set up a grand scene with a bunch of cameras and then go into the chaos—he treats it as live theater,” said Inside Man’s cinematographer Matthew Libatique to American Cinematographer magazine (April 2006).

A woman administrator, one of his bank’s employees, walks through an office full of antique elegance, and tells Arthur Case, the bank’s founder, about the robbery. He asks about whether anyone was hurt, a deeply decent first question (to ask first about money lost would be understandable but less decent). Case then asks which branch, and when told, sits down, worried: there is something in the branch he does not want discovered; and a blow has been delivered, the repressed has returned to this man who has used his money for various charities and who knows some of the most important and prominent people in the world. Do all his good works count for more than his secret; against what might be exposed by the robbery? If we take Arthur Case as one of the great establishment figures of his time, what are we taking him for: a man of money and power; and a man of administrative use, in terms of the banking system; or, a man of morality and value, someone who embodies what the society supposes itself to stand for—such as civility and generosity? Do we take him, simply, as another flawed being? If he can be proven derelict in some way—personally or professionally—does our new understanding of who he is reflect on the system he is part of, in the way our previous understanding of him did?

Inside Man (Imagine/Universal 2006)
Inside Man (Imagine/Universal 2006).

Nietzsche wrote, in Beyond Good and Evil, that we do not object to a judgment because it is false, but that more important to us is whether the judgment preserves life—and I think this is why people in high places accused of bad character or wrong-doing are often defended: they are too important to society to be defeated, rejected. Then again, Nietzsche also points out in On the Genealogy of Morals that in his etymological study of words connoting good and bad, he saw that words synonymous with good were usually connected with high social standing, and those synonymous with bad were usually connected with low social standing.

There must be other standards for what is good or bad; and certainly in terms of moral values, laws and religions offer rules and punishments; and philosophers and poets and storytellers offer ideas and speculation. William Frankena, then a philosophy professor of the University of Michigan and formerly a president of the American Philosophical Association, in his book Ethics (Prentice Hall, 1973), wrote, “The sorts of things that may be morally good or bad are persons, groups of persons, traits of character, dispositions, emotions, motives, and intentions—in short, persons, groups of persons, and elements of personality. All sorts of things, on the other hand, may be nonmorally good or bad, for example: physical objects like cars and paintings; experiences like pleasure, pain, knowledge, and freedom; and forms of government like democracy. It does not make sense to call most of these things morally good or bad, unless we mean that it is morally right or wrong to pursue them. Partly, the distinction between judgments of moral and nonmoral value is also a matter of the difference in the grounds on or reasons for which they are made. When we judge actions or persons to be morally good or bad we always do so because of the motives, intentions, dispositions, or traits of character they manifest” (62).

The figure of Arthur Case—a man of power and status—will be perceived and judged by others in the film, others of less power and status but with the ability to affect how Case is seen and whether or not his status is contested, including by Denzel Washington’s Keith Frazier.

A finely hatted Denzel Washington, as Keith Frazier, speaks with the first officer at the crime scene, outside the bank, and the officer mentions having a gun pointed at him by one of the robbers in front of the bank, and on a previous occasion by a twelve-year old. Washington’s conversation with the officer—seemingly casual, but also a way to see if there’s more information to be gotten—is one of the scenes that allows us to see a different color in the actor’s palette. Denzel Washington is a serious actor, a model of integrity, passion, and truth, we know—and here in Inside Man as Keith Frazier he is, also, thoughtful, flirtatious, worried, excited, respectful, assertive, friendly, watchful, irritated, confused, insulted, open, funny, vulnerable, and proud. His performance in this film seems one of expanse. (“We’ve developed a kind of telepathy, we work very well together,” commented director Spike Lee about Washington to Film Journal International’s Kevin Lally, March 1, 2006. “I suppose we understand each other and are comfortable together,” Washington said of Lee to The Independent of London, March 31, 2006. The two made several films together, including Malcolm X and He Got Game. It is also remarkable that Russell Crowe and Ron Howard, not Washington and Lee, were first attached to the script; and one might imagine that the temperamental flexibility of Washington’s detective and the film’s lack of ideological rigidity might begin there.) Denzel Washington is famous but also mysterious; and that means that his expressions illuminate both the character he plays and what we are able to think of his possible temperamental range as a man.

Washington told London’s The Independent (March 31, 2006) about some of his preparation for the role: “‘I met some real New York City cops who acted as consultants on the film and they had a lot of flair,’ he says, smiling. ‘In fact, I borrowed their style, with the jewellery, the bow-ties and the hats. They can’t afford the $1,000 suits but they get the ones that look like them and they are slick. They have to have people skills in New York because they are on the streets all the time.’” It’s interesting, too, that Washington, onscreen and off, can seem both confident and humble. (Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle March 24, 2006, in an article also available then on the San Francisco Gate web site, Ruthe Stein wrote, “Washington seems completely at ease in front of the camera. His dazzling smile and way of sauntering—he moves with more grace than any actor around—are in full evidence.”)

Denzel Washington (to The Independent) also said, “I liked the script, it was a lovely idea to work with Clive Owen and Jodie Foster, I didn’t have to work too hard [only four weeks], the money was good and it was to be shot in New York—my home town. It’s a New York film—the city is almost one of the characters—and I love New York.” The film was made in about forty-three days in 2005, during the summer, some of it filmed in Manhattan, some in the Steiner Studios, a hundred-million dollar film facility at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek, in her March 24 review, wrote that Spike Lee “has a feel for the city that relatively few other filmmakers do, a knack for capturing not just the things people say to each other and the way they say them, but the way the city seems to be carried—maybe even powered—by the rhythm of their overlapping sentences: That symphony of speech is the city’s greatest source of vitality.”

Washington’s Frazier and his partner, Ejiofor’s Mitchell, have a rapport that is professional (full of respect and thought, as well as shared duty) and also friendly (supportive, joking). The relation between Washington’s character and that of Clive Owen’s Dalton Russell is of two men on different sides of the law. One is supposed to be in control, Frazier, and one has attained control, Russell. The John Calhoun article on the film’s production in American Cinematographer (April 2006)notes this:

The decision to film in Super 35mm 2.35:1 had a lot to do with the framing strategies the filmmakers had in mind for the two leads. “One of our earliest ideas was to have a centered frame for Clive’s character and a weighted frame for Denzel’s, so I wanted to work in 2.35,” says Libatique. “I thought it would create distinct negative space for each character. With Denzel’s character, framing left and framing right with a lot of negative space creates a sense of the chaos around him. You get the impression he’s a man under a microscope being watched by many.

The cinematographer Libatique told his camera operators, “We want to create a sense of control and largely centered frames with Clive’s character, and we want to have movement with Denzel’s.” That is a fascinating decision as the detective, the man of the law, is usually a figure of stability. What does it mean that Washington’s character is rendered unstable? Does it negate his authority and value, or simply make what happens a journey for him—an intellectual and professional journey?

Inside Man (Imagine/Universal 2006)
Inside Man (Imagine/Universal 2006).

Certainly, the tensions of life in the city—the differences among classes and cultures, ambitions and insecurities—are perceptible in Inside Man. In the film, inside the bank as the hostages are being moved, one man says, “Why you doing this? Why you doing this to me?” and it seems a funny, classic complaint: it contains an aspect of a persecution complex. The cell phones and keys of the hostages are taken by the captors, and one man claims to have left his cell phone at home. The crew leader, Clive Owen’s Dalton Russell, asks the dapper, smart-looking man his name, and it is Peter Hammond (Peter Frechette), and Russell takes out a couple of cell phones until he finds one with Hammond’s name—and Russell calls Hammond’s number and Hammond’s cell phone rings—with Kanye West as his ringer—in a nearby room. Russell goes into a room alone, thinking, pacing, then pulls Hammond—who seemed heroic for a minute; and now seems foolish and frightened—into the room with Russell and he viciously beats Hammond. Russell returns to the hostage group and asks, “Anyone else here smarter than me?” A Sikh man gives up a cell phone, and a little boy gives up an electronic game but is told to keep it. (The Sikhs are not Arabs, but rather many originate from India and Pakistan; and as part of their religion, begun more than five-hundred years ago and open to all, these seekers of truth believe in devotion, and discovering the divine within, and they abhor lust and greed, and reject empty rituals and also negative distinctions based on caste, gender, and ethnicity.) New York City, as many cities throughout history have done, draws its citizens from all over the world; and it has been made unique—with textures and tones sophisticated and rude, glamorous and desperate, generous and indifferent—as a result of what these people have become and done in this very particular place: “It’s just actually a country in itself. It’s different from any other place in the world,” one of its most celebrated citizens and artists, the painter, photographer, and filmmaker Andy Warhol, once said (“An Interview with Andy Warhol, I’ll Be Your Mirror, Carroll and Graf, 2004; 266).

Inside Man’s Dalton Russell wants some of what is in one of the city’s most prestigious institutions. Is it only wealth he wants? As Dalton Russell, Clive Owen, roughly handsome and with controlled but formidable feeling, conveys intellectual discernment and physical force: he makes his character Dalton Russell seem as impressive as he is imposing. (“He’s not a real crook, but the sort of suave, sexy mastermind who only exists in Hollywood caper flicks,” wrote Matt Zoller Seitz in New York Press, March 22-28, 2006.)

The hostages, a believably diverse group of New Yorkers, a tableau of many cultures, of a cosmopolitan world, are made to strip and put on overalls and masks: they are made nearly indistinguishable from each other or from the hostage-takers.

Inside Man (Imagine/Universal 2006)
Inside Man (Imagine/Universal 2006).

Denzel Washington’s Frazier meets with a uniformed police officer, Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe), who has been monitoring the crime scene and doesn’t immediately realize that Frazier is the lead man on the case, and they have an exchange of words that could be considered volatile if it weren’t basically practical and professional; and Frazier, asserting himself, uses manners despite his discomfort. Darius seems a little abrupt and anxious but methodical. Alone with his partner Mitchell, Frazier explains Darius’s apprehension by saying, “The police do not like mental considerations,” and what the detectives represent is that intellectual and psychological component, something other than act, gesture, force, law. The robbery situation will demand Frazier’s eyes and ears, and his intelligence; and will challenge whether what he sees and hears can be trusted. Frazier wants to observe the situation before doing anything, such as contacting the hostage-takers (and Frazier won’t call until he and Mitchell notice that the sign on the painter’s truck is a fake: an indication of planning, not impulse).

One of the hostages, a man with a severe heart condition, a man who seems in the midst of a seizure, is released. Despite the danger he has just encountered, that man wonders if he’ll be on television—and thus, out of honesty, intensity, and attitude, especially in how they complement and conflict, the film gives us humor.

Entering the supply room, one of the robbers says, “Beautiful.” We know this will be important but not why. One of the things one of Russell’s crew will do is make a hole in the floor (he describes it as a “beautiful shit-hole”). Why is not immediately clear, but the reason becomes apparent, and natural, upon review, and is a clue to part of Dalton Russell’s plans.

Inside Man (Imagine/Universal 2006)
Inside Man (Imagine/Universal 2006).

Jodie Foster’s Madeline White is introduced in a large, comfortable white office full of eastern and African art objects, an elegant office; and she is surprised to get a call not from one of Arthur Case’s assistants but from Case himself. (Wonderful how that name rhymes with Chase, a great name in banking.) It seems that Madeline White has been to Case’s July 4th parties but they have never met: they know some of the same people. Case goes to Madeline White and together they go for a walk. She is smart, smooth, soft-spoken, and without being sexual she is nearly seductive, and she is certainly soothing—but it could be a fatal self-surrender to be soothed by her—and she warns Arthur Case against lying to her and we do not doubt the sincerity of her threat. Jodie Foster has recently acted as women whose emotions are turned against self and sanity in certain dynamic situations; and it’s fascinating to see her take on such a different role. Manohla Dargis said, writing about the film in The New York Times (March 24, 2006), that “Ms. Foster deliver[s] her wittiest, most relaxed performance in ages. Part Mata Hari, part Ilsa the She Wolf, she stalks the sets in form-fitting suits and nose-bleed heels that show off her spectacular legs wonderfully.” Arthur Case wants Madeline White to secure the contents of a particular safe deposit box in the besieged bank.

Some of the crime scene activity, featuring hostages and their holders inside the bank, and the policemen outside, is intercut with future interviews with the hostages, interviews conducted by Washington’s Frazier and Ejiofor’s Mitchell and filmed with a different palette—dark, green-tinted (others have described the color as sepia; and apparently a bleach process was part of the film’s development, one that the cinematographer said “neutralizes the color temperature and creates more contrast” and then “unifies all the color,” according to the April 2006 American Cinematographer article on the film). These police/hostage interviews are important because for Frazier, the case contains mysteries, frustrating mysteries; and I thought his handling of the interviews was intelligent, provocative, and understanding—trying to elicit truthful responses from people who may have been in on the robbery. Newsday’s Jan Stuart (March 24, 2006) thought differently: “Lee and his screenwriter dislodge the chronology of events in a way that throws Frazier’s character into momentary doubt, as the bank hostage situation is juxtaposed with scenes of Frazier interrogating the battered hostages (presumably after they have been freed) with a cocky sarcasm that gives the appearance of adding insult to injury.” Stuart may be used to a police sensitivity I have not ever seen in my life.

In the film’s “present time” the Sikh hostage, the one who tried to keep then gave up his cell phone, is sent out and quickly pummeled by the police, who see his turban as a sign of his being foreign and think he might be a terrorist. They take his turban off him, a turban the long-haired man wears as part of his religion. He asks for his turban back, many times, an asking interspersed with—exasperated, funny—cursing. The detectives question him about what went on inside the bank. First you beat me, now you want my help, he says: “What happened to my f-ing civil rights?” What civil rights? “Mr. Lee manages to hit on exactly what it’s like to live here since Sept. 11, without the heavy-handedness of the sort of terrorism porn-shlock coming out this year. Even the music feels right,” wrote Sara Vilkomerson in her feature article on Spike Lee in The New York Observer (March 20, 2006). That—what it’s like to live here now—means suspicion and surveillance and suspension of rights many assumed were unquestionable. It also means that the anxiety can be a common point of reference, inspiring laughter, sympathy, or violence. The film theater audience laughs at the characters’ recognition of the tensions they live with, but that recognition does not implicate directly the larger social forces—not the individuals but the institutions—that lay much of the foundation for social systems, values, and goals. The Sikh acknowledges that the detectives also face discomforts (though not all discomforts, or their remedies, are equal); and the Sikh acknowledges that his identity allows him some benefits in the city. When released by the hostage-holders, before being tackled by the police, the Sikh hostage had a large black box attached to him; and the police retrieve the black box with a message scribbled on it. The police read the message on the box, but do not examine it further.

In quick succession: Madeline White (Foster) has gone to the city’s mayor for a favor. She, on behalf of Arthur Case, wants entrée to the bank robbery scene; and the mayor is hesitant at first, but as she has done something significant for him in the past, he grants the favor. The scene between the mayor and Madeline White suggests mutual back-scratching at the highest levels; and the mayor compliments her with words that might otherwise be considered a curse. When Case himself visits the police at the bank, and is told the robbers want a jet, Case asks if the police want him to arrange it—the officers look surprised and it’s one of those moments when one sees how the rich live, and it suggests their very different strategies for how to handle the matter. The hostage-holders send out a note requesting food for the hostages. A woman police officer says to order pizza, not sandwiches, and when a fellow officer questions this, she explains that with pizza people will congregate around the boxes and they will be easier to wire (for sound) and listen to their conversations. One of the nice things about the film is how intelligence is expressed by different characters. The film suggests both a skepticism of other people’s intelligence and also approval of that intelligence when that intelligence proves useful. After the pizza is delivered, Frazier (Washington) and Russell (Owen) see each other for the first time, and Frazier says a few things but his words go unanswered. Russell will take the time, later, to bring the little slang-talking boy in the bank a pizza slice and drink, and Russell will also look at the violent hand-held game the boy is playing (the boy compares the game to the robbery: it’s all about survival and getting money). One has a moment to consider the various ways in which people are corrupted; and to wonder if—the world being what it is—there is any other way to be.

When the detectives and other police officers listen to the conversations inside the bank, they hear a foreign language—Russian? (That is intercut with a post-crisis interview with one of the women hostages, a woman we saw near the beginning of the film. Seeing the detectives stare at her breast, she asks them if they want her to bend over to pick up a pencil for a picture. One of the hostage-takers was identified as large-breasted, so that explains, if not excuses, their persistent interest. It’s one of the film’s ingenuous tactics to give acceptable reasons for physical or sexual considerations. However, I do wonder if that, like a little of the humor, is not a little too obvious: vulgar.) When the foreign language is broadcast for the crowd, to ascertain if anyone knows the language, one rough tradesman says that it’s Albanian, a language his hated former wife speaks. After that former wife is asked for her help in translating, she (Florin Patch, as Ilina Miritia) arrives with a bag full of parking tickets she expects the officer to fix for her. It’s a small moment of the shifting play of power, as it is when one officer, Mitchell, first warns her against smoking in the police vehicle then accepts her smoking. (“Inside Man is a treatise on power,” wrote Ruthe Stein, SFGate.com, March 24, 2006; and it has “an abundance of riches.”) It’s interesting that looking at the character Ilina Miritia—sensual, arrogant—one can see what attracted and alienated her husband. She, amused, describes the speech they hear as a recording of a presidential address, something she grew up hearing. The recording is a diversionary tactic.

Inside Man (Imagine/Universal 2006)
Inside Man (Imagine/Universal 2006).

The robbers, with stacks of money all around, are interested in a particular safe deposit box—it turns out, of course, to be the same box that concerns Arthur Case, suggesting the root of his fortune: in the case, Russell and a woman associate find official papers and small black bags and a large diamond ring.

The mayor comes to the scene with Madeline White, who expects to intervene on behalf of Arthur Case, and the mayor introduces her to Frazier, to whom she is blithely insulting, telling him that what is occurring concerns “matters a little above your pay grade.” Frazier suggests raising his pay grade. She says that if he had been a little more diplomatic he would have been promoted by now. Frazier does, however, keep White sidelined in a nearby coffee shop until he is ready to use her. That will come after Frazier and Russell speak.

Here is how the film’s cinematographer, in American Cinematographer, describes the placement of Jodie Foster’s Madeline White, an important figure—in terms of social agility and power—who has been kept on the margin, by what is occurring in the bank with Owen’s Dalton Russell, and by Washington’s Detective Frazier’s judgment:

We start on one side of the street, see the mobile command center and the police getting into position, show the front of the bank, and then pan to the other side. In the distance, we notice Jodie Foster sitting in a diner, and the camera goes past the police officers and into a medium shot of her sitting amongst the chaos. The idea behind that shot was to show the uniformity and control of the [bank] interior, and then go out and show the mixture of color temperatures and the way the light falls in New York, how you have moments of sunlight pouring down, reflecting off buildings or hitting the street and also very cold, shadowy areas. We show characters moving in those [varied] environments before heading into the very controlled light, where Jodie’s sitting. It was nice to construct something like that, which worked on many levels in terms of the overall language of the film. That’s where I think cinematography meets the editing process; long shots like that can reintroduce the audience to where you are in the story.

The detective Frazier waited before attempting to contact the hostage-takers (he hesitated contacting them by telephone, as he said it didn’t feel right: “the largest part of conscious thinking has to be considered an instinctual activity,” wrote Nietzsche in “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” Beyond Good and Evil, Oxford University Press, 1998; 7). Frazier’s first telephone call is ignored. Frazier and Russell speak by telephone—Frazier’s second call is accepted, after the police received the message on the black box—and the two men banter, rudely, suggestively. The interplay between the two is immediate, forceful, and not without a few laughs, despite being conducted over phone lines. Frazier decides to allow White to enter the bank and speak with Russell, and Frazier asks White to be careful. White defends herself by saying she collects friends, not enemies. White offers Russell a short prison sentence and two million dollars, but he talks about the documents he found in Case’s box, about Case in Switzerland using his Nazi connections to make money. She threatens Russell; and Russell shows her proof, and says, “All evil deeds stink” and the stink announces the hidden crime. It is a little odd—though one actually does not think of it while watching the film—to have a robber make that moral point, an occurrence that might suggest we all have hidden depths, or simply, that Spike Lee’s film of the story by screenwriter Russell Gewirtz requires Russell to be complex. (One notices that the screenwriter lent his first name to the robber; and one wonders—lightly—if that is a sign that such a robbery is a fantasy of his.)

“Gewirtz and Lee intertwine plot twists (many of them patently ludicrous) with character development that feeds back into the film’s two main themes: the tendency of a fragmented, alienated community to unite around trauma, and the conflict between doing the right thing (so to speak) and getting paid,” wrote Matt Zoller Seitz (New York Press, March 22-28, 2006).

Does time—more than fifty years—not eliminate the stink of an evil deed? Is sunlight required? Are some crimes unforgivable, even after attempted retribution, after good deeds? Must public knowledge and judgment, and a formal court of law, be the final arbiters? Dalton Russell is confident he will get what he wants. Madeline White, a woman who is usually good at assessing people and situations, assumes he wants wealth (why else rob a bank?) and a plane (it is what he asked for), but, with the nature of his response to her offer, she says she does not understand his motivation. (Yet, subsequently, Frazier will ask White, as an educated person, for insight into Russell—will ask her to imagine Russell’s thinking—and that may express Frazier’s willingness to use all available resources, or it may be a slight to his own mind.) Russell seems to have some concerns that lie outside greed or personal safety (practical methods of escape). More than a desire for a large financial gain, larger than the one she is offering, but also individual consciousness, and the historical past, and morality—none of these simple—move Dalton Russell beyond the obvious. She cannot see beyond her own values; and that rhymes with something Nietzsche said about philosophers that might relate to many kinds of thinkers: “I came to understand what every great philosophy to date has been: the personal confession of its author, a kind of unintended and unwitting memoir; and similarly, that the moral (or immoral) aims in every philosophy constituted the actual seed from which the whole plant invariably grew,” as he wrote in “On the Prejudices of Philosophers” (Beyond Good and Evil; 8). Of course, Nietzsche seemed to believe in thoughts rather than in thinkers.

“Whoever got a plane?” asks police officer Darius, regarding the history of kidnapping and robbery. Frazier recognizes that Russell doesn’t seem to be in a rush. Russell answers Frazier’s telephone call, his mask down (the actor Clive Owen manages to project a commanding drive even when masked); and Frazier asks to see the hostages, to confirm their safety. Frazier visits the bank. Frazier and Russell talk, and before leaving Frazier tries, and fails, to subdue Russell. When Mitchell asks Frazier how it went, Frazier says, “I got him right where I want him, right behind me with my pants around my ankles,” a casually sarcastic and self-humbling response. Frazier, the man who would be in control, who wills things, is not achieving his desired effects. Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil) wrote about how being commanding assumes that there is something in oneself and in another person, or others, that will follow; and that we can begin to confuse the will with its effects—so that just willing something conveys a sense of power. What Frazier is facing is the fact that his will and his reality are not in accord: his will is not a cause, there are other factors, and yet he takes this personally, though the very fact of this discord confirms the impersonality of the situation—it has little or nothing to do with him. There are things he does not know about what is going on.

“We alone are the ones who have invented causes, succession, reciprocity, relativity, coercion, number, law, freedom, reason, purpose; and if we project, if we mix this world of signs into things as if it were an ‘in itself,’ we act once more as we have always done, that is mythologically. The ‘unfree will’ is mythology: in real life it is only a matter of strong and weak wills,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” in Beyond Good and Evil (Oxford University Press, 1998; 21).

Both the detective Keith Frazier and the lead hostage-holder have strong wills, but it is the later that has a knowledge—about what is happening, and why—the former lacks. Inside Man’s criminal mastermind Dalton Russell conducts, before the watching eyes of the police, what seems an execution. Frazier goes back to the bank, questioning Russell and attempting to goad Russell into shooting him (Frazier doesn’t think Russell has the sensibility of a killer). Russell says, “You’re too smart to be a cop,” then ‘Tell them to send someone sane over here.” Each man recognizes the other’s intelligence. Frazier’s subsequent talk with the first policeman to arrive on the crime scene leads to a helpful clue. The film goes on, with various kinds of surprises, and a satisfying amount of entertainment, and then it ends with another version of the wonderful Indian song that began it.

Upon first viewing, its narrative surprises are potent. I have not, as of this writing, seen it more than once so I do not know if I would experience the same level of interest seeing the film a second or third time. It is a film about which one has to consider how important plot is to its effect, and whether its other features could compensate for a lack of surprise. “I don’t think plot is important,” Andy Warhol said years ago: “If you see a movie, say, of two people talking, you can watch it over and over again without being bored. You get involved—you miss things—you come back to it—you see new things. But you can’t see the same movie over again if it has a plot because you already know the ending” (“Andy Warhol, Movieman,” I’ll Be Your Mirror, Carroll and Graf, 2004; 187).

Inside Man is lean, propulsive work, with all its elements—cast and crew—working beautifully together, with care, conviction, and craft, but with the film’s end, which in many ways seems flawless, guiltless, shameless, lacking anything to give us doubt or worry, I am inspired to wonder about the experience and its meaning. Doesn’t human experience cost something, and not only to one person—such as a bank president, or rich man, who has made some of his money in very questionable ways? Doesn’t it cost something to the rest of us? Does accepting a crime, for whatever reason, have implications for our sense of morality? If a thief is stolen from, is the theft still a theft? Is injuring an immoral man an immoral act? Is reporting and gaining justice for one crime—an old crime—an acceptable substitute for the enactment and handling of a new crime? Can we accept that we are likely to leave Inside Man with the pleasure of a story well-told, and the pleasure at the film’s display of varieties of intelligence, rather than the old-fashion Hollywood pleasure that follows when all the criminals have been punished?

Spike Lee told Kevin Lally of Film Journal International that “directing a good film has to be one of the hardest endeavors known to humankind. There’s so many intangibles, so many things have to go right” (March 1, 2006). It seems that with Inside Man much did go right, even as some of the people in it go wrong. The film shares similarity to the recent work of directors such as Woody Allen, David Cronenberg, and Steven Spielberg, and others who have used certain genre forms—mysteries and thrillers; in Match Point, A History of Violence, and Munich—to entertain and also to explore issues and situations that might otherwise seem too difficult, too serious. One can argue that those three films ask whether a particular transgression, whether violence, is an appropriate response to personal, social, or political problems.

“The more abstract the truth you wish to teach us, the more you must entice our senses into learning,” wrote Nietzsche in “Epigrams and Interludes” (Beyond Good and Evil; 66). Inside Man is a film that assumes the complexity of the world without necessarily being about that complexity; and yet it can be listed among the films, whether made in America or abroad, that—yes, in its assumptions—reflect that complexity, and embrace the diversity of society, and which also feature individuals of the African diaspora (often African-Americans) and even sometimes Africa and Africans themselves, films that have found an audience and/or critical approval: Akeelah and the Bee, Ali, As Good as It Gets, Basquiat, Beloved, Besieged, Blue Collar, The Bodyguard, Boomerang, Broken Flowers, The Brother from Another Planet, Brothers, Bulworth, Chameleon Street, Changing Lanes, Claudine, Collateral, Contact, Cry Freedom, The Crying Game, Daughters of the Dust, Deep Cover, Devil in a Blue Dress, Dirty Pretty Things, Diva, Edge of the City, The Emperor Jones, Eve’s Bayou, Field of Dreams, Ganja and Hess, Get on the Bus, Glory, The Gospel, Grand Canyon, He Got Game, Hotel Rwanda, The Hurricane, In My Country, The Learning Tree, Losing Ground, Love Jones, Mahogany, The Manchurian Candidate, Matewan, The Matrix, Melinda and Melinda, Mississippi Masala, Mona Lisa, Nightjohn, Nothing but a Man, One False Move, One Night Stand, Othello, Passion Fish, Philadelphia, Princess Tam-Tam, Putney Swope, A Rage in Harlem, Red Violin, Ride with the Devil, Sankofa, Shawshank Redemption, Sidewalk Stories, Six Degrees of Separation, A Soldier’s Story, Something New, Sounder, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Strange Days, Tap, Three Kings, To Sleep with Anger, The Wiz, Woman Thou Art Loosed, and The Woodsman. Several of those films feature Denzel Washington, and are by Spike Lee; and many of those films feature or were made some of their peers.

“To make all films mean the same things by applying the same critical procedures is to ignore the rich variety of film history. In a given film, any item may bear an abstract meaning; or it may bear none. It is all a matter of conceptual scheme, intrinsic context, and historical norms,” wrote David Bordwell in Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Harvard University Press, 1989; 267). Bordwell, in Making Meaning, thought exploration of film could involve more consideration of its composition, functions, and effects, and he advanced the idea of a film poetics that would include awareness of, and attention to, the surface of a work, the context of its making, earlier forms of critical reception, and identification of stylistic conventions. “As a historian of forms, genres, and styles, the poetician starts from the concrete assumptions embedded in the filmmakers’ craft. Sometimes these are articulated by practitioners; sometimes they must be inferred from the product and the mode of production. The poetician aims to analyze the conceptual and empirical factors—norms, traditions, habits—that govern a practice and its products” (269). I do not know what it would mean to look at a film such as Inside Man entirely from such a poetics, with much of its focus on form and style, nor would I be inclined to substitute that for my own concern for the philosophical question the film inspires in me. Inside Man is an intelligent, funny, thrilling movie, attractive in the use of the cosmopolitan city, with its power and its tensions, as the context for the story; and the story suggests how the histories, desires, and fears of many people converge to create a personal and public event. The event itself asks questions deeper than the obvious about right and wrong. I can note, also, that in many films featuring policemen and robbers, the thrill of transgression—of going against the rules; of theft—is countered by the inclination to affirm civility and law at each film’s end—punishing transgression. The people in Inside Man are aware of scenario: there are explicit comparisons by Frazier to Sidney Lumet’s robbery film Dog Day Afternoon. Inside Man’s story resists the typical presentation of crime and punishment: if inclined, we can leave the theater without guilt at condoning what would ordinarily be considered wrong, so that the perfect robbery—a crime, a theft, that cannot be reported or proved—is also the perfect entertainment. The film, in its embrace of intelligence and awareness, can stimulate both intelligence and awareness; and I have been surprised that more people have not commented yet on the philosophical implications of the film.

Many of the commentaries on the film seem to accept the attitudes in the film—the desire to get money; the flexing of power—as not worthy of any particular contestation. “Our language of values is one of the central ways we coordinate our lives with one another,” wrote Kwame Anthony Appiah in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W.W. Norton, 2006; 28). Kwame Appiah went on to speculate about how a response to a film—such as one person describing a film as cynical to another—is not only an attempt to get the listener or reader to accept a fact about a film, such as the fact of a film’s cynicism, but an attempt to shape how the second person feels about the film. (Is that true, or merely a plausible assertion?) Appiah asserts that evaluation of stories—in films, books, and other media—can give guidance for how we act in the world: “It keeps our vocabulary of evaluation honed, ready to do its work in our lives” (30). I liked, and like, Inside Man, so my motive is not to encourage an attitude of dislike regarding the film, nor do I think that the affirmation of a message that might seem less than civil or moral is always to be repudiated: experiments in thinking and living are often necessary, and often give pleasure. “Cosmopolitans think that there are many values worth living by and that you cannot live by all of them. So we hope and expect that different people and different societies will embody different values,” affirmed Kwame Anthony Appiah (144). Such liberalism is not the same as amoral indulgence: it is an understanding of human difference. The public tolerance of a widely perceived transgression—such as theft—is something else. Many can understand theft if survival is at stake—which is, obviously, not the same as a desire for easy wealth. It is interesting and useful to note shifts in thinking and living. I do think that the situation Inside Man presents, and the ideas that can be read in its evolution, are worth thought: and I wonder, Do two wrongs make a right? Or has our understanding changed so that what once appeared wrong is simply another strategy for wealth? Have we finally arrived at Nietzsche’s idea that morality is simply another human invention? Is it no longer enough to respect morality for its preservation of civility and order, for its protection of humanity?

When asked once what his favorite film was by Jordan Crandall, Andy Warhol answered, “Just the last one I’ve seen” (I’ll Be Your Mirror; 355). I understand what he meant.

Daniel Garrett is currently a New York resident, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, The Compulsive Reader, Offscreen, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.

$ $ $Date: 2007-11-08 10:36:07 +0000 (Thu, 08 Nov 2007) $