Mike Wallace fearlessly faces down a burly Hezbollah henchman over seating arrangements at an interview, but crumples like an empty soft pack when Big Tobacco blows smoke up his microphone. At least, that's how the elder statesman of television journalists comes off in Michael Mann's tube-bashing, altogether absorbing news drama, "The Insider."

Christopher Plummer, deliciously puffed up with self-importance, clearly relishes the role of the blustering "60 Minutes" regular, but Wallace (already irked over how he was portrayed in an earlier version of the script) will be tick-tick-tick-ticked off. And he's sure to have lots of company once colleagues get a look at Mann's damning re-creation of the events that led up to CBS's decision to censor a tobacco company expose by the newsmagazine.

Inspired by real events, the picture centers on Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), the head of research and development at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. Troubled by what he learns in the company's labs, Wigand becomes increasingly vocal and is soon fired for his "poor communication skills." To obtain his severance and retain his health benefits, he's forced to sign a confidentiality agreement with his bullying bosses.

Wigand wrestles with a guilty conscience, but might well have gone on to live a comfortably uneventful life had "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) not hired him to make sense of some highly technical industry documents. At their clandestine initial meeting, Wigand makes it clear to Bergman that he'll decipher the documents, but that he won't breathe a word of what he knows about Brown & Williamson. He does, after all, have an acquisitive trophy wife and a sick kid to support.

Bergman, charismatic, persuasive, indefatigable, could talk the Marlboro Man into trying NicoDerm, but Wigand's venal former bosses do much of the work for the producer when they begin to harass and threaten Wigand and his family. They have woefully underestimated the extent of Wigand's rage and mistaken his dour, guarded manner for wimpishness when it's clear he's about to go postal.

Bergman recognizes Wigand's distress, befriends the troubled soul and, with the care of a soldier defusing a bomb, talks him into exposing tobacco's dirtiest little secret in an interview with Wallace: Cigarettes are routinely treated with chemicals to enhance the nicotine's effects. In other words, the stuff's addictive and the Burley Boys know it.

So does the rest of the world, but Mann and co-writer Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump") don't belabor the point. They're much more interested in examining the Draconian tactics of the tobacco barons and what it costs the whistle-blowers of the world to go up against corporate Goliaths. It's the kind of story "60 Minutes" tells so well. Wallace, quivering with moral outrage and banging on closed doors, soldiers on for the little guy. Only in this case, nobody comes to the rescue. Wallace and the show's executive producer, Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall), knuckle under when the network executives insist that they kill the interview lest Brown & Williamson slap CBS with a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit.

Bergman is shocked and outraged by this affront to the integrity of the Fourth Estate, not to mention himself, but Wigand, who loses his family, his face and a small fortune, is deprived of the only thing that still matters: He wants his two little girls to know why their daddy so disrupted their lives. Bergman, who promised to provide Wigand with a bully pulpit for his message, responds the only way he can. He takes out a whistle of his own and calls his contacts at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Though the movie deals with the machinations of reporters and is being touted as the best journalism movie since "All the President's Men," it actually has far more in common with 1979's "The China Syndrome" (an executive at a nuclear facility publicizes dangerous practices with the help of a sympathetic TV journalist). And when it comes to scathing indictments of the television industry, Mann and company have already been bested by 1976's "Network."

"The Insider" isn't exactly what you'd call a scoop. Few viewers will be half as surprised by CBS's humbling retreat as is Bergman, a supposedly savvy news hound who has somehow made it to the top without so much as sniffing a corporate weasel.

Wigand, on the other hand, doubts the sanctity of "60 Minutes" from the start and has no more faith in Big Media's altruism than Big Tobacco's: A corporation is a corporation is a corporation, and protecting the shareholders' interests is just big business as usual.

The good guys are pitted against stereotypically drawn villains--icy lawyers and smug fat cats--but the filmmakers and actors have given their heroes clay fingers and toes and they are all the more fascinating for their flaws. Wigand is a real pill, cold and uncommunicative with his wife, inclined to temperamental outbursts and appearing to be as motivated by vengeance as moral duty.

Crowe, the 33-year-old Australian who played the volatile cop in "L.A. Confidential," virtually disappears inside the 53-year-old Wigand's thick, stiff body. There's no trace of youth or hope in the weariness with which he drinks his Scotch, no discernible difference in the way he kisses the wife or pulls on his socks. Yet Crowe's minimalist performance gives us clear insight into this opaque being.

Pacino, at his pop-eyed, spittle-flying best, supplies energy and a welcome counterpoint to Crowe's downcast character. And let's not forget Plummer's gleefully snooty take on Wallace, whom the writers provide with a mouthful of quotable lines: "I don't plan to spend the last of my days wandering in the wilderness of National Public Radio," he says of his betrayal of Wigand and Bergman.

Wallace, who thinks of himself as heir to Edward R. Murrow's hard-hitting style, is particularly upset when a newspaper editorial denounces the incident as an insult to the memory of Murrow, a chain-smoking muckraker who couldn't get through his half-hour show without his tobacco. Smoke gets in his eyes. But Murrow never lost sight of his scruples.

Mann, who mastered style in his TV series "Miami Vice" and previous films like "Heat," adds substance to the formula with the intensely dramatic, fiercely principled "Insider." We all know how to whistle, don't we? There just aren't that many of us steamed enough (or is it heroic enough?) to blow.

The Insider (155 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for language.

CAPTION: Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman, left, with Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand in "The Insider."