Insider, The (1999): Michael Mann’s Expose of Tobacco Industry, Starring Russell Crowe

Michael Mann, who last directed the crime epic “Heat,” reteams with Al Pacino in The Insider, a quasi-provocative expose about one of the biggest public health scandals in American history.

I say quasi-provocative because the film, which is extremely well-made and acted, doesn’t reveal many new facts, nor does it offer many fresh insights on an event that was thoroughly covered in the press.

Dealing with the battle between Big Tobacco and CBS’ prestigious news program 60 Minutes, the drama centers on correspondent Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) and his producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who were forced to drop a story about a tobacco-industry whistle-blower (brilliantly played by Russell Crowe), because CBS feared a lawsuit might endanger the network’s pending sales.

Mann is directing from a sharp screenplay he co-wrote with Eric Roth (Oscar-winner for “Forrest Gump”). Narratively, the tale follows the events that transpired when ageless on-air correspondent Mike Wallace (brilliant Christopher Plummer) and his longtime producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) were forced to drop a story about a tobacco-industry whistle-blower (Russell Crowe), because CBS brass feared a multibillion-dollar lawsuit that could have, among other things, jeopardized the network’s pending sale.

In “The Insider,” Mike Wallace and “60 Minutes” get a taste of their own medicine. Wallace is understandably unhappy with this high-profile account of big-time journalism and its inevitable compromises. “This movie is purely about putting fannies in seats,” said 60 Minutes spokesman Kevin Tedesco, “and has nothing to do with the truth. Mike Wallace is extremely unhappy.” Said actor Mazar, who plays Bergman’s assistant, “When you make a movie about a big scandal, you get into sticky situations.”

The impact of a potentially challenging story boldly tackled is slightly diminished by excessive length and an aura of self-importance, if not pretentiousness, in The Insider.

This detailed analysis of the ferocious power, implacable arrogance, but also vulnerability of corporate America, can only be respected for the fearless determination with which it pulls the curtain back on the shameless giant-profit and image-minded companies.

Director and co-writer Michael Mann has have made a “big,” “important” film that despite its passion conviction often takes out the juicy melodramatic, resulting in an overwrought and over-bloated production.

Even so, there are many merits to be praised other than the topical subject matter. Wearing light make-up and sporting an accent, Russell Crowe renders an outstanding performance that should be remembered at Oscar time.

Crowe and the rest of the male-dominated ensemble, Mann’s directorial touches and film’s technical skillfulness are reliably impressive, but something is missing to make it a great movie experience. Perhaps a dj vu feeling and overhype, accounting to too high expectations.

Even before its theatrical release, the movie’s over-hype led to unrealistic expectations. The New York Times editor Frank Rich has called the feature “the most-profile screen account of big-time, brand-name journalism since ‘All the President’s Men,'” Alan Pakula’s admired chronicle of the Watergate scandal in 1976, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.