Michael Mann deservedly earned himself a reputation as one of the preeminent action directors of the last 20 years, but that unfairly typecasts him. He brings the same attention to detail to his dramas that he does to his action flicks: Ali, heavily, heavily flawed as it was, was as interesting outside the boxing ring as it was within it. His experience with more visceral fare allows him to maintain a steady pace while maintaining an ability to capture every shot in pristine clarity. That precision makes every shot seem necessary, and it has a way of creating tension, as it leads the audience to believe that something important is on-screen, that anything cast in such detail will have some bearing on the narrative later in the film.
Ergo, while he may have superior films, The Insider best showcases Mann's talents. Making an actual thriller as opposed to shooting an action film like one gave the director license to make moments almost unbearable in their suspense. Even the scenes in which the corporate aspect of this corporate thriller come to the fore do not lessen the tension of Jeffrey Wigand's paranoia, for they expose a much deeper corruption than Wigand can uncover. Like the best of the old newspaper thrillers, The Insider pits intrepid whistle blowers against faceless enemies with unlimited resources as they desperately try to tell their story without dying.
Wigand, head of research for tobacco company Brown and Williamson, loses his job when he discovers that the tobacco industry used a chemically-altered form of nicotine in their cigarettes that made them more addictive while also increasing the risk of cancer and never informed the public in order to make bigger profits. Even though the company fired him, he must still honor his nondisclosure agreements or face a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit; fearing he might take his knowledge to the news anyway, executives attempt to force Wigand into signing an even more stringent agreement by threatening to withhold severance benefits, including the medical insurance he needs to cover his asthmatic daughter's medical fees. An outraged Wigand tells them where they can shove it and takes up a job as a high school teacher to get healthcare.
By random chance, Wigand crosses paths with 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who was referred to the former executive to decode some information regarding health and safety-related documents concerning cigarettes. Worried that any involvement with a journalist could place him in a courtroom, Wigand initially refuses, but eventually capitulates and agrees to meet him at a hotel. The two begin a correspondence, and Wigand slowly reveals more and more details about the "Seven Dwarfs," the seven leading tobacco corporations, and how the CEOs of each perjured before Congress concerning their knowledge of nicotine's addictive properties.
The more Wigand divulges, the more he starts noticing strange things. A man spies on him at a golf course. Someone leaves a bullet in Wigand's mailbox. Eventually, his wife opens an email containing a death threat. Mann shoots these scenes in a style highly reminiscent of that great whistle blower film All the President's Men: shadow doesn't so much bathe the frame as wash over it like a tidal wave, all of it contrasted with the cold, artificial light he likes to use to play up his urban elements. That sickly faint-green hue only exacerbates that feeling in your gut that something terrible is about to happen.
Russell Crowe gives what may be his finest performance as the older Wigand: he walks with the slack gait of a desk jockey and delivers his lines with alternate boredom and frenzy. Sadly, Crowe seems to use that same characterization for any American role these days, but despite his self-typecasting, his Wigand stands out. He provides a nice foil for Pacino, playing against type as the more subdued of the leads; indeed, Crowe seems to be playing what would usually be the Pacino part, though Al excels in his "straight man" role.
Even as the threats pour in and his family begins to crumble, the strong-arming only strengthens Wigand's resolve. He agrees to testify in a Mississippi state case against Big Tobacco for Medicaid costs covering those affected by smoking, only to find himself served with a restraining order that the industry's elite lawyers cooked up. At last, Mann reveals the real thrust of the story: this is not the story of Jeff Wigand so much as a commentary on the monetary structure of news groups. CBS interviews Wigand for a 60 Minutes segment, only to censor the interview because the station receives ad money from the tobacco industry and can also be sued for billions. Mann and writers Eric Roth and Marie Brenner uncover the irony of journalists striving for integrity and truth when corporations known for their corruption have a stake in major journalistic avenues.
That's what makes The Insider so enraging: though Wigand succeeds in getting his message to the public, how many people in how many fields have been silenced in one form or another by corporations that seem to have sway over everything? Whistle blowing always takes a degree of courage, but it's downright suicide in some cases. But Mann never beats us over the head with this theme, allowing us to spend more time gripped by the plot. For all its talkative scenes held in boardrooms and surreptitious meeting places, The Insider is Mann's most involving film. It may not reach the heights of his epic, Heat, but I can think of no better argument for the man's greatness than this 2-1/2 thriller that passes in half the time.