Lowell Bergman (Pacino), CBS reporter, pursues the ex-head reasearcher of a tobacco company (Crowe) to spill what he's found out about their knowledge of the adictive nature of tobacco. His life is runied by death threats and he loses his family, but determined to tell the truth he gives the interview, only to find the show is pulled.
Michael Mann could not exactly be described as a prolific director. The thing is though, that while sedate in the delivery, they're usually worth the wait. From the weird, utterly underrated Nazi horror flick The Keep, through the original, and best Hannibal Lecter vehicle, Manhunter, right up to Heat, which famously placed Pacino and De Niro on screen together for the first time, Mann has quietly established himself as one of the most talented directors working in America. And with The Insider, a brilliant, nailbiter of a true-story conspiracy thriller which bears comparison with All The President's Men and JFK, he's delivered his best so far.
Based on a magazine article, The Insider follows the (disputedly true) story of Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe, through make-up that ages him 20 years), head of a tobacco company's Research And Development department, who discovers that the fag companies have for years not only known that nicotine was addictive (cue fat lawyers rubbing their hands sensing multi-billion dollar lawsuits), but worse, they've been farting around with the formula to make it even more so (cue fat lawyers calling for fresh biros as they add the zeroes). After being persuaded to give a TV interview by producer Lowell Bergman (Pacino), Wigand discovers that smoking is deeply bad for your health, even if you've never lit a gasper in your life. Harassment, death-threats, a possible prison sentence and a collapsed marriage are a few of the ordeals that Wigand is put through -all, it would appear, to no avail when squabbling at CBS' 60 Minutes news programme leads them to ditch the programme, much to Bergman's horror.
Mann's film is a devastating picture of corporate America at its most venal and corrupt, and at its heart are a pair of powerhouse performances: Pacino is at his finest, chewing the scenery with a corking series of his trademark slow-burn rants, but it's Crowe who is the soul of the film, as a man trapped by forces too massive for him to fully comprehend. Delivering an ambiguous performance, (we're never too sure what his motives are; money is at one point mentioned), which deftly avoids the cliche of the helpless victim and occasionally gives in to self-pity, Crowe manages to give what could be an overwhelmingly complex film a deeply human centre.
Mann's direction is as assured as ever, his script (co-written with Eric Roth) skillfully delivers complex information without causing mental indigestion, his pacing is superb (two and a half hours plus feels like half the time) and of course, given that it's by the man who invented Miami Vice, it looks gorgeous.
With 2000 already having delivered American Beauty and Magnolia, it appears that someone accidentally knocked the quality switch to "on" in the Hollywood machine. Let's hope no one notices.
Assured direction, perfectly paced script and soulful performances make this one of Mann's best films.