Photo by Frank ConnorNOT FAR ALONG IN THE NEW MOVIE THE INSIDER, after the players have been introduced and the preliminaries sketched out, there's a scene in the kind of darkened room in which Don Corleone once did business, an office paneled in wood and weighted with quiet. The scene is a small masterpiece of psychological warfare, laid out with near-geometric precision. At the center of the room is the head of Brown & Williamson, a tobacco CEO played by Irish actor Michael Gambon with the sort of sinister gentility usually reserved for Machiavellian types in ermine collars. In front of his desk, heavy as stone, sits Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a onetime B&W vice president, who in turn is flanked by two company lawyers. The CEO is threatening his erstwhile employee, though not in so many words. The beauty of the scene -- beyond the CEO's insinuating phrasing and the way his buffed nails catch the gloomy light, beyond the way Crowe's face contorts in fury before his granite façade crumbles all over the costly appointments -- is that for most of it, we can't see the lawyers in full. Their threat is literally faceless, and all the more terrifying as a result.

The Insider, director Michael Mann's potent thriller about a pudgy, middle-aged whistle blower and the secrets he spilled about the tobacco industry, is a big film about some of the biggest issues of our time -- corporate malfeasance, government collusion, mass-marketed death, bottom-line news. It's about a lot of things not immediately visible, but the issue at its heart is free will -- to smoke, to make right and wrong decisions, to sell out, to not sell yourself out and everyone along with you. It's no wonder the film begins with a shot of a man being held captive, his head bound in cloth. The hostage (one of the film's many) is Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a onetime 60 Minutes producer who helped launch Wigand from corporate obscurity into prime-time notoriety, and whose own story ran a troubled parallel course with his famous journalistic subject. When the film begins, Bergman is on his way to a sit-down with a Hezbollah leader, priming the terrorist for an interview with his show's brilliantine star, Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer). A former radical, Bergman is an insider of a different stripe, a guy with a Geronimo poster on his office wall and an upper berth in New York's media elite.

Bergman gets Wallace his interview, but soon after that he's chasing another story, in the jittery form of the former B&W executive. Based on a Vanity Fair article written by Marie Brenner, who with Mann and Eric Roth wrote the screenplay, The Insider tells the story of how Bergman persuaded Wigand to break his confidentiality agreement with Brown & Williamson, but tells it with a bitter media twist. After Bergman produced the 60 Minutes segment with Wigand, CBS opted to suppress the interview. Executives offered up legal cause, but the real reasons the network put the kibosh on it are more insidious: The then­CBS chairman was Laurence Tisch, who with his brother runs the Loews Corp. In addition to movie houses, Loews owns the Lorillard Tobacco Co., which is run by Tisch's son. At the time of the interview, not only was Lorillard attempting to buy some brands from B&W, but Tisch was negotiating a merger of CBS and Westinghouse. Even if the filmmakers play fast and loose with some of the details, it's clear why no one at Black Rock wanted Wallace shining his fourth-estate beatitude on Wigand.

BUT THE SEGMENT DID AIR, AND WIGAND WENT TO court, where he's since served as a witness in lawsuits against big tobacco; meanwhile, his life fell apart and he became a high school chemistry teacher. Fascinating in measure, but hardly the stuff of exhilarating cinema, or at least it would seem. Which is doubtless why from the first scene, with Bergman under wraps, right through to its pulse-pounding climax -- involving an escorted drive to a cinder-block courtroom in Mississippi -- Mann directs The Insider like a political thriller, relying as much on character as intrigue to fuel the suspense. And it works. Wigand, impacted with rage and, to Mann and Crowe's credit, nearly absent sentimentalism, moves through the wreckage of his life like one of those mealy types Humphrey Bogart would try to slap some sense into, or at least some backbone. Wigand is first seen packing up his office, but what you notice isn't so much the image of the nondescript, graying scientist as his labored breath, so loud that he sounds like a deep-sea diver gasping for air. Throughout, Mann is trying to get into Wigand's head (in one shot, the camera looks like it's riding shotgun on his shoulder), trying to get a lock on the conscience of a man who suddenly discovers he has one.

For his part, Crowe lets Mann in, and us along with him. It's one of the truest performances of the year, which may be the reason why his more famous co-star keeps himself so neatly tamped down. It's almost a shock watching Pacino play a human being. He's always been at his best -- and worst -- pounding the far ends of the scale, from Donnie Brasco to Scent of a Woman; like Robert De Niro, he's never been convincing playing midrange. Bergman is the closest Pacino has come in a while to someone who's more than an actor's conceit; even when the producer feels the CBS noose tightening, Pacino keeps the character in the realm of possibility. But it's a decision that, however profitable to the film's verisimilitude, denies us the possibility of Pacino at his full-throttle best. (Impossible as it may be to believe, there are moments when you want Mann to goose Pacino, who at times seems as if he's pulling back to give Crowe more room.) It's a modest quibble, but significant. The Insider is a very good film, one of the finest offered up by Hollywood this year. It's smart, and smart about politics in all the ways other left-leaning movies, such as Three Kings, American Beauty and the punch-drunk if well-intended Fight Club are not. The Insider is so admirable and right in so many ways that the fact that it misses greatness is, ironically, its most piercing disappointment.

In all of Mann's work, there's a tug between his pulp instincts and the sort of heroic individualism that can elevate pulp into something more, something beyond viscera and genre convention. For Mann, the apotheosis of these two propulsive impulses was The Last of the Mohicans, which blasted the dust off a 19th-century classic with breathtaking 20th-century force. Mann tried to locate something similarly heroic in Heat, in which Pacino's master cop faces down De Niro's master thief, wasting ammunition and talk along the way. But while there's plenty of pulp in this exercise in style, heroism -- and meaning -- is nowhere to be found, just beautiful, tough men and violence so charged with eroticism that a shootout doesn't feel simply dangerous, it feels like foreplay. In the end, Heat collapses into a void of meaning, the kind that opens up when a director's talent outstrips his material. The Insider is a superior film, and in certain crucial scenes, it's also more thrilling -- Crowe and his character's metamorphosis alone give it reason for being. But in taking on an important topic, in finding a subject again worthy of his talents, Mann made the mistake of thinking that corporate greed and harnessed righteousness were enough excitement for one movie. He quieted his own excesses, and denied us the possibility of Michael Mann at his own extravagant best.

Which doesn't make the film a disappointment, only something short of a triumph. As far as the rest of it, The Insider has the glorious look and immaculate technique we expect from Mann, along with a wealth of superb secondary performances. Plummer's fiendish read on Wallace makes it hard to imagine ever looking at the newsman with a straight face again; there's an especially delicious moment when we catch the cathode celebrity transfixed by one of his own interviews, a self-indulgent smile clinging to his lips like powdered sugar. Colm Feore and Bruce McGill, as a pair of Southern lawyers, are terrific, as is Diane Venora, who as Wigand's wife gives substance to another one of Mann's anemic female characters. It's maddening, or maybe just a sign of his perversity, that a director as good at catching the rhythms of ordinary male-female intimacy would consistently fail to create roles for women as richly expressive as those he hews for men. At least Howard Hawks, the filmmaker to whom Mann seems most intuitively connected, in terms of both his sheer professionalism and his abiding interest in male relationships, could occasionally conjure up a female character who wasn't a shrew or, worse, didn't vaporize into triviality. It may be a Mann's world, but that's still no excuse.

THE INSIDER | Directed by MICHAEL MANN | Written by MARIE BRENNER, ERIC ROTH and MANN | Based on an article by BRENNER | Produced by PIETER JAN BRUGGE and MANN | Released by Buena Vista | At selected theaters

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