Owen Gleiberman
October 29, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Insider

Current Status
In Season
Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Michael Gambon
Michael Mann
Mystery and Thriller, Drama, Historical

We gave it a B

Directed and cowritten by Michael Mann, The Insider is a vigorous and engrossing exercise in ’70s-conspiracy-movie nostalgia. From the moment that ”60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and obscure scientist Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) — who was fired from one of the major tobacco companies — commence their top secret relationship, via a dueling series of faxed communiqués, the movie immerses us, with consummate flair and skill, in the backroom processes of news gathering.

For 2 hours and 35 minutes, it unfurls the story of how Wigand, the man who blew the whistle on the tobacco industry, was promised the deliverance of a bully pulpit by Bergman and the corporate honchos at ”60 Minutes,” and how he got screwed in the process. The show decided not to run his interview; the executives killed it at the last moment when it looked as if it might result in a lawsuit that could topple CBS.

The movie, which anatomizes the corporate-media culture as an ominous vertical system, presents this decision as the end of Western journalistic integrity as we know it. Except that Wigand’s story ran, in full, in the Wall Street Journal two months after ”60 Minutes” axed it. The System didn’t fail — it triumphed. It was ”60 Minutes” that failed. Yet ”The Insider,” savvy and entertaining as it is, doesn’t seem to comprehend that this was a cop-out of showbiz as much as it was of journalism.

I think that’s why the movie feels overly long: It’s about a molehill posing as a mountain. Well, not a molehill, exactly — but hardly the Fourth Estate’s version of the Watergate cover-up, either. Mann works hard to flesh out his characters. Crowe, sporting a thickened gut under his chemist-drone disguise, can’t keep his macho volatility from poking through (that actually works for the film), yet his performance, like his American accent, is a bit too studied; his Wigand seems, at times, a very noble replicant.

Pacino, in fine form, idealizes Bergman, but in an irresistible way, making him wily, impassioned, four-square heroic. Ultimately, the movie says that this lone crusader took on the system and lost. It presents the monolithic forces he’s up against as a sinister revelation for the audience. But back in the ’70s, when this sort of film flourished, those forces WERE a revelation. For the first time, pop culture dramatized the concentration of power in America. Now, we know all of that; it’s not news (it may well be an oversimplification). ”The Insider” is a good but far from great movie because it portrays truth telling in America as far more imperiled than it is.

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