IT HAS been a long time since we've had an enjoyable paranoid thriller in the tradition of such 1970s movies as "The Parallax View," and "All the President's Men."
The key ingredient in those movies: a sort of refreshingly naive surprise that society is controlled by secret star chambers whose evil work is too subtle or concealed to be detected, and who have the organizational might to terminate any whistle-blowers foolish enough to take them on. This is good stuff.
"The Insider," a fictionally reordered accounting of the three-way battle that included the TV news show "60 Minutes," the CBS network and the tobacco industry, hits that hungry spot.
Michael Mann's thriller, starring Al Pacino (as producer Lowell Bergman), Russell Crowe (as tobacco company whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand) and Christopher Plummer (Mike Wallace), is a well-orchestrated nightmare that keeps you on edge until the very end.
The facts, based on Marie Brenner's Vanity Fair article, "The Man Who Knew Too Much," are these: Wigand, who was a central witness in lawsuits filed against the tobacco industry by Mississippi and 49 other states, spoke with the "60 Minutes" team against the desire of his former employers.
Hounded by death threats and a smear campaign for speaking out, he was shocked to learn that the TV show would not air his interview because of pressure from CBS.
The network, seeking to avoid litigation, asked "60 Minutes" to do a different version of the news piece, sans Wigand. This prompted in-house squabbling between producer Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace (both of whom agreed to air the non-Wigand version) and Bergman, who fought the idea vigorously.
The movie, which Mann wrote with Eric ("Forrest Gump") Roth, follows this story closely, but adds the appropriate atmospherics. By Hollywood's limbo-pole standards, "The Insider" is a well-executed thriller which examines the shifting interface between high-minded principle and job security, between corporate agenda and moral code. Under Mann's direction, the movie becomes a man-to-man contentious friendship between Pacino's Bergman and Crowe's Wigand, echoing a similar relationship between Pacino and Robert De Niro in Mann's "Heat."
Although Crowe's portrayal of Wigand is "warts and all," Brenner's article paints a more damning picture of Wigand's irascible behavioral, marital and drinking problems. Conversely, Plummer's Wallace shows a newsman a little too enamored of his legendary status, whose professional integrity is only as strong as his desire for job security.
How close is this to the truth? The real Wallace has publicly expressed his displeasure with the movie's depiction of events, particularly concerning the circumstances that led to his capitulation to CBS. Is "The Insider" a hagiography of CBS News producer Bergman at the cost of his colleague Wallace and CBS management? How far from the truth does the movie wander? Suffice it to say, there's a patina of truth here, enough for a good night at the movies.
"I don't burn people," Bergman tells Wigand, who fears that the "60 Minutes" producer will betray him.
We don't know until the end whether Bergman will honor his word. But as we wait to find out, we are moviegoers, not Beltway pundits. What we're dealing with here is sheer drama: the waning trust between two men forced together under extraordinary circumstances.
We're also appreciating strong performances. As a tubby, increasingly paranoid (but with good reason) company man who becomes a dangerous catalyst in one of the nation's most pressing public health matters, Crowe is fantastic to watch.
Pacino lends the right balance of heroic and antiheroic qualities as Bergman to keep us rooting for him to the last. And whether Plummer's on the mark or not, his interpretation -- like this movie -- has a powerful ring of believability.
THE INSIDER (R, 158 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and emotional intensity. Area theaters.