The Insider

Director Michael Mann accomplishes a few clever feats in his new film “The Insider,” but the most amazing one is taking a subject that could easily be of no interest to most people — journalistic integrity behind the scenes at “60 Minutes,” involving a whole lot of talking and almost no big-time movie “action” — and turning it into one of the most engrossing, interesting movies of the year.

“60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) meets a man named Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a recently fired tobacco-company scientist with damning information about his former bosses and their fellow smoke-blowing, “we-don’t-believe-it’s-addictive” companies.

At the risk of a lawsuit — he signed a confidentiality agreement with his former employer — Wigand agrees to blow the whistle on national TV. CBS gets nervous, though, fearing a lawsuit from the tobacco company, and won’t let “60 Minutes” air the piece.

Wigand’s life has already been destroyed, though, as he testified in a Mississippi court in addition to filming the “60 Minutes” interview — only now that the piece won’t be televised, he’s got nothing to show for his trouble.

It’s all based on a true story, but that’s not used as a crutch. Not once does the movie say, “Hey, this is what actually happened, so it’s not our fault it’s boring.” Instead, screenwriters Mann and Eric Roth, working from a Vanity Fair article, simply make the movie not-boring. There’s no need to rely on the “based-on-a-true-story” excuse, because this film is more riveting than most fiction.

Bergman is a bold, in-your-face journalist (he yells ominously at an uncooperative source, “I’m gettin’ two things: pissed off and curious!”) who also has integrity and compassion. It’s the kind of journalist most Americans think doesn’t exist anymore, yet rather than making him seem like an idealized Superman, Pacino plays him like he’s the most normal thing in the world.

Crowe, too, as Wigand, delivers a fine performance. His difficult decisions, his methods of dealing with the consequences, it’s all spread out there before us. We follow him every step of the way, and though he’s really just an ordinary guy, we’re 100-percent interested in what happens to him.

Again, that’s the wonder of this movie. It is, after all, a rather conventional story — Little Guy vs. Big Guy; moral dilemmas; etc., etc. — but somehow the direction and excellent performances make it seem so unconventional and engaging.

At 2 hours and 40 minutes, it is a little long. Several shots of nothing more than someone riding in a car or hitting golf balls go on much longer than necessary. But aside from that, this is a satisfying, compelling film, destined to be compared with that other journalistic-integrity movie, “All the President’ Men” — but the comparisons should be favorable.

A- (2 hours and 40 minutes; R, language.)