Beautifully Made: The Insider on DVD

Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debbi Mazar, Gina Gershon. Directed by Michael Mann. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1. 160 minutes. 1999. Touchstone 19298. R. $32.99.

The Insider is a mildly fictionalized account of how 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) convinced Dr. Jeffrey Weigand (Russell Crowe) to publicly state that cigarette companies were aware of nicotine's effects on cigarette consumers and that the companies actually manipulated the amount of nicotine delivered through chemical means. It's a rousing yarn made even more fascinating by the fact that, after having acquired the Weigand testimony, CBS caved in to Big Tobacco pressure and declined to air the interview—until Bergman managed to embarrass the Tiffany network into living up to the heritage of Edward R. Murrow.

It sounds as though this would be a boring "he said/they said" scenario, but Michael Mann, always an intensely visual director, manages to show what characters are thinking and feeling with an enriched cinematic language.

It is a beautifully made movie. The camera practically caresses the protagonists and their worlds, and the exotic score emphasizes the strangeness and interconnectedness of even the simplest events. The surround effects are subtle but effective.

And what a cast! Crowe is remarkable as a proud man quick to take offense and prickly as a cactus. As the film progresses, Crowe's performance becomes stronger and stronger—Weigand is subjected to pressure, abuse, even death threats, and Crowe shows us a man unraveling in the face of an unbearable load.

Pacino is the heart of the film, and if he seems to be playing Al Pacino, it could also be argued that so do many New York ethnics. Of all the real-life characters drawn here, Bergman seems the most saint-like, but even his halo is shown to have some tarnish.

The other remarkable performance is Christopher Plummer's as Mike Wallace, shown here as a proud man ready to fight the good fight, but only after some goading. Wallace objected to this characterization, but he gets off easy in comparison with Ed Friendly and the rest of the CBS brass.

Thoroughly satisfying as a piece of narrative, The Insider delivers the dramatic goods. It's a thoughtful, thought-provoking film that will reward its viewers with visual riches and a ripping good morality tale.