NEW YORK — New movies as different as "The Straight Story" and "Boys Don't Cry" are based on real-life occurrences, but none is more revealing than "The Insider," starring Al Pacino as a crusading "60 Minutes" journalist and Russell Crowe as a tobacco industry whistle-blower whose life is almost ruined by his decision to take a stand against corporate greed and deceit.
Informed moviegoers will already know about this story from news accounts, but its dramatization in Michael Mann's devastating film makes it as vivid and compelling as the most attention-grabbing headline.
Pacino plays Lowell Bergman, a producer of "60 Minutes," the influential CBS news show. When the case of scientist Jeffrey Wigand comes across his desk, he takes an interest for more than one reason. Wigand is bursting with inside information, since as a former research chief at tobacco giant Brown & Williamson, he knows everything worth knowing about the company's activities.
Just as important, Wigand seems ready to go public with evidence of the tobacco industry's nastiest secret: that despite loud denials made under oath during a congressional investigation, its leaders knew they were peddling a poisonous and addictive product.
If Bergman can get Wigand before a camera and present their interview to the enormous audience of "60 Minutes," the producer can impact perceptions of tobacco marketing and its consequences for public health.
But problems loom. For one, Wigand's anger at his former employer isn't necessarily strong enough to override his anxieties about the damage he might suffer - harassment, lawsuits, even criminal prosecution - if he breaks a contractual obligation to keep his mouth shut about company policies and practices.
For another, his family life isn't that solid, and the added strain of a highly public controversy could shatter it for good. The corporation seems ready to fight, mobilizing a smear campaign that sets even Bergman reeling with its suddenness and ferocity.
On top of all this, Bergman finds himself unexpectedly battling his own corporate bosses. Despite its commitment to hard news, CBS gets cold feet, toning down its revelations and eliminating Wigand's testimony despite the harrowing experiences he's endured for the sake of the program.
Is this decision based on sound journalistic reasoning, as claimed by Bergman's superiors and associates - including Mike Wallace, also involved in the segment - or is it because a high-profile controversy could endanger the network's impending sale to a conglomerate with very deep pockets?
"The Insider" operates on two different but related levels. It's an engrossing human drama, posing a difficult moral question - how much private contentment should a person be expected to sacrifice in the service of a greater good? It explores the answer through a series of tightly written, pungently acted episodes as powerful as anything Hollywood has given us in ages. It's also a rare example of keenly relevant muckraking by a Hollywood studio that dares to point fingers and name names.
This doesn't mean the picture is a documentary-type study. It's a movie melodrama complete with appealing stars, neatly scripted dialogue, and crisply constructed scenes (some that are being contested by real-life figures in the story) designed to convey a traditional motion-picture punch.
As such, it's more effective at some points than at others, and its first half - focusing on the early stages of Wigand's torturous decisionmaking process - works somewhat better than its later portions, when big-business representatives (tobacco-industry executives, "60 Minutes" honchos, and CBS managers) slug it out.
This notwithstanding, "The Insider" is one of the most stirring movies of this increasingly strong year. Mann and his collaborators deserve great credit for their achievement, as does the Walt Disney studio for releasing it as part of a stimulating 1999 slate that has already given us "The Straight Story" and "Summer of Sam," among other pictures. Congratulations to all.
*Rated R; contains vulgar language, implied violence, and other adult material.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society