Michael Mann loves bad guys. Loves their drive, the snarl in their stare, the swagger they have learned and earned. From his first feature film, 1981's Thief, to the 1995 Heat and his swankily corrosive TV shows Miami Vice and Crime Story, the writer-director has toured the underworld and found it a great place to visit.
The Insider (Why not call it Smoke?) has Al Pacino (as 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman) pointing and shouting like an aging mafioso. But Pacino is one of the good guys. The real gangsters are tobacco barons in Louisville, Ky., and network lawyers in New York City. They speak in genial or condoling tones; they have only the best interests of their corporations at heart and truly hope you see it their way. Otherwise they'll crush you. Brown & Williamson CEO Thomas Sandefur (played by Michael Gambon) has a manner as smooth as the draw of a Kool menthol into the lungs, and every bit as toxic. A CBS attorney (Gina Gershon) softly, crisply tells the lords of 60 Minutes that they must submit to a higher authority--Mammon. The byline is nothing compared to the bottom line. It's a dark reality that Mike Wallace (a deft impersonation by Christopher Plummer) has to juggle. Does his loyalty belong to his current CBS bosses or to the ghost of Edward R. Murrow?
Mann and co-screenwriter Eric Roth want to make The Insider a suspense thriller and an art film. There are assignations under dark bridges, ornery messages snailing out of fax machines, snatches of arias on the sound track and enough slo-mo shots to extend the movie's running, or ambling, time to 2 1/2 hours. And those endless conferences! The viewer almost has to be a journalist--or a good editor--to sniff out the meat under all the fat.
The hero here is Jeffrey Wigand. As played so acutely by Russell Crowe, he is a sullen, stocky, difficult fellow, a Hamlet whose soliloquies have to be read in his nervous blinks and stammers, in the latticework under his tired, wary eyes. They are all the hints we need to detect a soul swamped in ethical dilemmas. When Crowe gets to command the screen, The Insider comes to roiled life. It's an All the President's Men in which Deep Throat takes center stage, an insider prodded to spill the truth.
At heart, the movie is about family betrayal, the corporate torture of two insiders (Wigand at Brown & Williamson, Bergman at CBS) by the people they worked for and with. Its caveat, which any wage slave should ponder, is that you can be hurt by your bosses' strength or weakness. A change in the corporate weather, and the most valued employee is suddenly expendable--an outsider. Do you fight to get back in? Or plot, with only your rancorous conscience as a guide, how to survive, alone, in the cold?
--By Richard Corliss