In 1969 the Greek-French director Costa-Gavras made an extraordinary film called "Z," based on the true story of the plot against -- and takeover of -- the Greek government by a gang of fascist generals, a few years before. It starred Yves Montand as a government prosecuting attorney who tries to stop the coup, and tells what happened to both him and the country. The film derived much of its power from the fact that we knew the coups, the lies, the double-crosses, the assassinations, had all happened much as we saw them on the screen. It was a compelling reenactment of a dreadful episode in history.
Here in the United States we've not yet had, and hopefully never will have, such a coup. But we do have our scandals, our disgraces, our hypocrises, and our coverups. And one festering scandal was the decades-long denial by tobacco companies that they made cigarettes as delivery vehicles for the addictive ingredient nicotine. More than that, they experimented with various additives, including ammonia, that would enhance the 'hit' of the nicotine. That's no longer a shock, but until a few years ago the wall of silence stood unbroken.
Then a Brown & Williamson executive, Jeffrey Wigand, blew -- or tried to blow -- the whistle, contacting a "60 Minutes" producer with the details. "The Insider" is the story of what happened to him. But the recitation of who said what to whom is the very least of the film. Director Michael Mann, whose strength is hot kinetic pacing ("Heat," "The Last of the Mohicans," the TV series "Miami Heat"), worked from a script by Eric Roth (a very mixed bag, including "The Horse Whisperer," "The Postman," "Forrest Gump"), who in turn built his story on an article by Marie Brenner in a 1996 "Vanity Fair."
Mann has succeeded far beyond all conventional expectations about a story like this, because he's concentrated on questions of trust and betrayal. Wigand (a fascinating, understated performance by Russell Crowe) is a man not given to emotional outbursts. He's withdrawn even from his wife and children. His "60 Minutes" producer is Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), tough, skilled and experienced at getting what he wants, including, as we see at the opening, an exclusive interview with the Ayatollah. He is a man whose every emotion flashes across his face like Rudolph's red nose. The two men have an uneasy relationship, slowly building a kind of halting confidence in each other. Wigand has the secrets, and he will tell them to Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) on the show. Bergman is his handler, his colleague, in a sense his brother. Hand in hand they will open the scandal to the light.
But the tobacco company is hardly without resources. They threaten Wigand, they plant a smear campaign, they make it known to CBS that they have grounds for a lawsuit that could destroy the network. And the news division buckles under the pressure, leaving Wigand hung out to dry, and Bergman, who fought and lost, facing a crisis of conscience. That is the story of the film, or most of it. It's a story of moral and intellectual conflict, but Mann has shot and edited it as though it were about the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and Scarface Al Capone. Shots that aren't hand-held are swish-panned. He shoots through venetian blinds, through rain-swept car windshields, through chair backs and wine glasses. And he cuts, and cuts and cuts and cuts, sometimes just a few frames at a time.
But Mann also knows when to stop and rest. He knows when to hold the camera on a person while we watch and wait for something to happen. He even knows that an empty frame can have more to say than a busy one. He's taken a script that, alone, is little more than a straightforward recitation of events and confrontations, and assaulted us with a powerful statement about corporate power, individual conscience, white-collar crime and hypocrisy. Crowe's Wigand is a man who halfway through the film finds a life for himself, a life that he can relax into and enjoy for the first time. We hurt for this man, and we cross our fingers that he will be well again. Pacino's Bergman is compelling -- Pacino is always compelling, a master at the underrated art of delivering powerful and spontaneous line readings -- and Plummer is perhaps a bit slimier as Mike Wallace than Wallace himself might like, but let's remember that Wallace started his career as a talk-show host and never has been a newsman.
Selected by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association as the best film of 1999, "The Insider" belongs, if not at the top, at least somewhere up there in a year of more than a dozen truly brilliant films.