Al Pacino and Russell Crowe in Michael Mann’s excellent The Insider

Michael Mann’s The Insider is about maintaining integrity in the family. The film’s two heroes, 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman and research chemist Jeffrey Wigand, must fight parallel battles with their parent companies: big TV and big Tobacco, respectively.

When Wigand is fired from the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, veteran journalist Bergman smells not only a good story, but an important one as well. Wigand, a twitchy, haggard father of two, knows what we all by now know, or at least suspect about cigarettes—that nicotine is addictive, and that tobacco companies like Brown & Williamson put in further additives, sometimes carcinogenic, to increase addiction.

What makes Wigand’s knowledge crucial though, is that it comes from the inside, it’s an official condemnation. The film that follows is a David-and-Goliath story of everyman nobility from the perspective of those who package nobility for our viewing pleasure.

Controversy over the film arises from the fact that some of the more pulpy “facts” within The Insider- that 60 Minutes anchor Mike Wallace and executive producer Don Hewitt caved in to management when deciding not to air the Wigand interview; that the tobacco industry made Klan-like death threats against Wigand; that superman Bergman had a masterful hand in keeping virtually all reporting done on Wigand truthful and decent, manipulating even The Wall Street Journal- have themselves been packaged (read: imagined) by writers Mann and Eric Roth.

Some even report that Bergman was consulting with Mann on the film at the very same time he was consulting with Jeffrey Wigand for his crucial interview. However, as disheartening as the facts may be, The Insider, when viewed in the escapist vacuum-tunnel of a movie theatre, is a beautifully acted, beautifully shot epic thriller.

Michael Mann’s characters are sculpted out of living bronze. From Daniel Day-Lewis’s revolutionary pioneer in The Last of the Mohicans to Robert DeNiro’s torn criminal in Heat, passionate nobility has had a very real presence in Mann’s work. He keeps up the streak with Russell Crowe’s fascinatingly awkward Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist whose silence speaks volumes. Crowe (L.A. Confidential, Romper Stomper), who at 35 still lives in the outback of his native Australia, is perhaps the most quietly intimidating actor working today. His Wigand, a graying chemist in his mid-fifties, has a dangerous, very palpable edge. The burdens of house and company (Brown & Williamson insisted he sign a strict confidentiality agreement) show through in Crowe’s hooded grey eyes and his lumbering walk.

Al Pacino, as the tough idealist Bergman, plays, as he did in Heat, the flamboyant counter to stoic nobility, an unwavering and brash hero whose fire is not quite so hushed. Pacino’s performance is endlessly nuanced and refreshingly un-hammish, always threatening to lose that last tiny grasp of control. It’s a romantically textured portrayal of a newsman and some of his best work.

The male supporting cast in The Insider (the women of Mann’s films usually stand by peripherally, in positions of power but not control) is nearly impeccable. Each man is an emotional bull with his own personal fight to win. Michael Gambon’s rich Kentucky drawl as Brown & Williamson CEO Thomas Sandefur virtually embodies the mighty menace of the entire tobacco industry. Christopher Plummer transcends impersonation in his fierce portrayal of Mike Wallace, whose aging desperation is convincing, if not occasionally exaggerated by Roth and Mann (Wallace’s image is, ultimately, kept intact).

As Jeffrey Wigand’s southern belle wife Liane, Diane Venora (Heat) is tragic and operatic—Mann’s women usually are. Her character is perhaps the weakest of the movie: she cannot stand by her husband if he tells the truth; she would rather divorce him than endure.

Gina Gershon is likewise miscast as the pseudonymous head attorney for CBS, Helen Caperelli. Next to Wigand and Bergman, she looks like an image-conscious twenty-something who puts far too much thought into her lipstick and heels. Perhaps it is a testament to the male-dominated worlds of journalism and big business that these women have so little meaningful effect on the viewer.

Michael Mann, creator of the TV shows Miami Vice and Crime Story, is as obsessed with style as he is with honest acting. The Insider is a marvelous tapestry of blue and green neon, rain-soaked shadows, and whitewashed landscapes. To taunt the furies that hide beneath man’s skin, cinematographer Dante Spinotti (he shot L.A. Confidential, as well as every Mann film since Manhunter) creates an icy grey world of insistent coolness.

The post-modern score by Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard, complete with synth-beats and Middle Eastern vocal lines, is rich and often heavy-handed, but its dramatic import is appropriate for a film in which every single artistic aspect has been meticulously composed.

Michael Mann is the Richard Wagner of today’s Hollywood, a grave auteur who will stop at nothing to achieve a total-work of art, with often gut-wrenching results. After sitting through 148 minutes of The Insider, we know that something important has taken place, and, miraculously, we have enjoyed every painstaking moment.