Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Logically, Michael Mann's "The Insider" shouldn't be the edge-of-your-seat, gut-churning thriller that it is. A movie about Jeffrey Wigand, the guy who blew the whistle on the tobacco companies? Don't we know how that story turned out? A movie about how "60 Minutes" caved under corporate pressure and pulled its Wigand interview off the air? We read about it in the paper. Besides, everybody knows nicotine is addictive. This is news?

Yes, indeed, when it's told by a filmmaker as accomplished as Mann. What he and his co-writer Eric Roth have chiseled out of this public drama is a wrenching personal tale of two men engaged in mortal combat with the corporate dragons. One is Wigand (Russell Crowe), the R&D man who is fired from his job at Brown & Williamson and decides to expose the tobacco company's courtroom lies. The other is Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), the "60 Minutes" producer and reporter who must seduce Wigand to go public with what he knows, and protect him against the smears, the byzantine lawsuits and the death threats that follow. Bergman, who works with Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), doesn't foresee that his crusade, like Wigand's, is going to put him in a head-on collision with CBS's business interests. "The Insider" is a parable any employee can take to heart: as flies to wanton boys are we to the CEOs. They crush us for their sport.

Mann could probably make a movie about needlepoint riveting. Employing a big canvas, a huge cast of superb character actors and his always exquisite eye for composition, he's made the kind of current-events epic that Hollywood has largely abandoned to TV--and shows us how movies can do it better. Crowe makes Wigand a fascinating, mulish hero. Under his pudgy, blond and bland exterior lurks a cranky, complex and proud man caught in an impossible dilemma. It's hard to believe this is the same actor we saw in "L.A. Confidential." Pacino is rock solid, and more restrained than usual. The movie takes some liberties with the facts, giving Bergman credit for things he didn't do. Whether it's unfair to Wallace (as the veteran journalist claims) we may never know for sure, but Plummer wittily captures the man's florid style and aura of self-importance. Philip Baker Hall plays the capitulating CBS heavyweight Don Hewitt, and Bruce McGill as lawyer Ron Motley has an extraordinarily satisfying courtroom moment when he puts the smug corporate litigators in their place. Powerfully and elegantly, "The Insider" reveals a chilling reality: how hard it is to tell a simple truth when big business doesn't want it told.