As "The Insider" opens, a blindfolded Al Pacino is led past armed guards and into the presence of a fearsome Hezbollah potentate. Is director/producer/co-writer Michael Mann ("Miami Vice," "Heat") out to assault our senses with another stylized, pistol-packing operetta?
No dice. Pacino's Lowell Bergman is a producer with TV's "60 Minutes," and he's trying to secure an interview between the terrorist Sheikh and newsman Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer). Despite some tense moments, the segment comes off, and the plot thread is promptly abandoned. For "The Insider" is not about Middle Eastern flare-ups, but the brouhaha that ensued when the newsmagazine censored a tobacco-industry exposéé to appease the jittery CBS legal department.
The unrelated prelude serves two purposes: to inject some drama into a surprisingly static tale and to explain what Mike Wallace does for a living. As if that were necessary.
A story this juicy shouldn't require such manipulation. After Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) is fired from his job with cigarette giant Brown & Williamson, his attempts to blow the whistle on the company's shady dealings are jeopardized by legal intimidation and threats of violence against his family. With much coercing from Bergman, Wigand puts the personal risks aside to go on the record with Wallace, only to find his allegations relegated to the cutting-room floor by cowardly network heads.
The inevitable talkiness of the subject matter isn't an insurmountable obstacle. But without his beloved shoot-outs and fist fights to rely on, Mann is unable to approximate the suspense level of "All the President's Men" or "Silkwood." He even throws in a shot of a burning car that likewise has no relation to the narrative.
Nor is he much for character development: Bergman's wife, Sharon Tiller (Lindsay Crouse), is restricted to staring up at her heroic husband in wide-eyed admiration, while Wigand's spouse, Liane (Diane Venora), is mostly incensed that his firing has interrupted their upwardly mobile lifestyle. Introduced to Wallace over dinner, she's elated to be in the company of a true TV star, but breaks down in sobs when she realizes that Jeffrey is planning to submit to one of the journalist's no-holds-barred interviews. Why did she think they were dining with Wallace in the first place?
You want to admire a film that tackles the heady issues raised by "The Insider." The true story's heroes and culprits have remained undisguised on their way to the screen; like its protagonists, this picture names names. And Crowe's fine performance zeroes in on the emotional instability that gave the doctor the chutzpah to take umbrage against the system while simultaneously making him a less-than-credible witness.
Less concerned with crafting an actual character, Pacino shows up in the same rumpled, black wardrobe he probably brings straight from home. At key moments, his voice rises to its familiar indignant pitch to serve notice that his spineless bosses are all outta ohdah, then slips back into the impenetrable, asthmatic whisper at which it's resided since "Godfather III." Time to fire-bomb another auto, Mr. Mann -- your pal Al is merely blowing smoke.