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a review of "The Insider"

*The Insider (R)

Touchstone Pictures

Director Michael Mann retells the true story of Jeffrey Wigand, the corporate whistleblower who brought big tobacco to its knees, with heart and style. Simultaneously, he retells the story of CBS brass's now infamous decision not to broadcast Wigand's testimony on 60 Minutes because of threats of a lawsuit brought against them by Brown and Williamson, the nation's third-largest tobacco interest.

Meshing Wigand's personal story with CBS' corporate tale is a difficult task, and Mann succeeds masterfully. Were he more successful at one than the other, The Insider would be a far less effective film. As it is, we get the best elements of both remarkable tales.

Russell Crowe turns in the best performance of his career as the beleaguered Wigand, lending his character the heavy, tangible weight of conscience and family responsibility. Crowe does this with remarkable physicality -- his Wigand is at once solid and brave, but painfully, visibly burdened by all that he knows.

And as CBS producer Lowell Bergman, Al Pacino gives a fine, modulated performance. Given the opportunity to be holier-than-thou, Pacino frequently stoops to breast-beating, but here he tones down his righteousness.

Christopher Plummer is perfectly cast as anchorman Mike Wallace. Mann's depiction of the journalist paints a picture of a dignified, aging celebrity caught in one of the most difficult moments of his career -- one where he makes the wrong choice, but we are led to understand his reasons. They are flawed, but we can accept them, because they reflect the same fears and weaknesses we all possess.

Mann's style with the camera works well with this material -- in most of the movie's scenes, we are made aware that more is happening than just what we see in the foreground. Shots are framed off-center, with a close-up of the main character set far to the left or right of the frame, the background slightly out-of-focus, creating a tension between what we can and cannot see, between what we know and don't know.

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