A stooped, overweight and crushingly shy middle-aged man isn't the most obvious hero-figure for a movie, and vigorous, handsome actor Russell Crowe isn't the first choice to play such a character. Yet, as tobacco industry researcher Jeffrey Wigand, Crowe pulls off an amazingly convincing and engrossing performance. And by choosing the story of an individual's fight against a faceless corporation - a fight that costs Wigand his job, his reputation and his family - writer/ director Michael Mann succeeds in telling a compelling tale of quiet, real-life heroism.
Despite the poster credits listing him in second place behind Al Pacino, be in no doubt that this is Crowe's movie. For, while Al storms around demanding screen-time by hollering and being as overbearing as you'd imagine an investigative journalist to be, Crowe's Wigand is far quieter, yet far more interesting. Most of this is down to him being just a normal bloke, and therefore easier to relate to, and some of it's because Wigand constantly gets the shittier end of the stick.
And The Insider works best when it's being quiet. Early on, there's a incredible, silent sequence when Bergman and Wigand exchange terse faxes. And, as persons unknown start to intimidate, then terrorise, Wigand's family (the film consciously makes no link between this and the tobacco companies), Wigand's resolve and fears are etched onto Crowe's face rather than being voiced.
By playing up the little moments and sticking to actual events, the film makes the most of what is, in traditional movie terms at least, an action-free narrative. Wigand's confession about the tobacco industry tampering with their product's chemistry might have made for a stunning TV exposé, but it's hardly the centrepiece you'd expect to a three-hour drama.
And yet it works as the cornerstone to a web of almost Shakespearean betrayals. The tobacco company thinks Wigand's reneged on his non-disclosure agreements, Wigand feels abandoned by Bergman when the TV show isn't aired and Bergman feels double-crossed by 60 Minutes presenter Mike Wallace (an excellent Plummer), who sides with CBS rather than his trusted reporter. All down the line court cases and legal documents are unleashed, and it's to the film's credit that it succeeds in keeping the viewer informed while they're being entertained.
Without an explosive finale or conclusion to the real events it covers, the last act of The Insider was always going to be a tough call, and the only real problem with the movie is that it fades away a bit towards the end. Much of this can be explained by the lack of Wigand, who vanishes off the screen as Bergman tries to break the story.
Which makes it all the more surprising that you leave The Insider with the feeling that you've seen something epic and sweeping. When all you've really seen are squabbling tribes of men in suits, albeit beautifully shot in Mann's distinctive style.
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While nuclear industry exposé Silkwood dragged interminably and Watergate pic All The President's Men concentrated on the events, The Insider stands as this limited genre's most rounded addition, and Mann's most human film to date.