The Insider is second only to Heat among Michael Mann's films; it surpasses Mann's cops and robbers epic in scope, but instead of Heat's mythic pairing of antihero and sympathetic villain in a hyperreal Los Angeles (or the miniature two-conflicted-men morality play of Collateral, The Insider turns the microscope on the day-to-day doings of journalism (gussied up a bit for dramatic impact), and tells a more conventional story of Noble Men fighting a Corrupt System - like the risible Erin Brockovich, but less black-and-white.
The Insider is interestingly structured: it goes from the story of a haunted whistleblower to a broader (and more broadly painted) tale of corporate wrangling and the co-opting of news by business, and the tone and focus of the movie shift as well, from Russell Crowe's marvelous, understated portrayal of tobacco exec Jeffrey Wigand to Al Pacino's whirlwind turn as a crusading journalist. The change of tone means more speechifying in the second half, which is nonetheless totally redeemed and troubled by Christopher Plummer's merciless turn as 60 Minutes anchor Mike Wallace.
Plummer's Wallace is like a conscience-free version of William Holden's TV producer in Network, and his every line is beautifully metered somewhere between aged integrity and pure reptilian cunning (I couldn't stop thinking of his sleazy pornographer-priest in the ludicrous film adaptation of Dragnet either, which probably says more about me than about Plummer's performance). He and Crowe's Wigand embody the film's interest in the way that muddy, even petty personal motivations (family, money, fame) combine and conflict with the demands of the faceless institutions to which society's goodwill and concern seem increasingly (unavoidably?) directed.
As usual, Mann and his ace collaborators deliver gorgeous cinematography, strong writing, intensely serious Big Acting (there might be two laughs in the whole 150-minute affair), and an atmospheric score that's redolent of the 100% synthetic Miami Vice but without that show's willful cheesiness. By film's end the Good Guys have scored a nominal victory, and text cards before the credits remind us that Big Tobacco ended up settling lawsuits for a quarter of a trillion dollars. But the best thing about Mann's film is that, with the exception of Pacino's lefty muckraker (who now teaches at Berkeley, natch), every character is shot through with doubt and distrust, and no one's motivations are uncomplicated or innocent.
In other words, The Insider is an adult movie: though it carries a moral message, it's not simply two and a half hours of moralizing (though I've got to point out that no one lights a single cigarette in this long movie about Big Tobacco - an odd atmospheric choice by Mann). We should be grateful for grownup artists who take on subjects worthy of their talent.