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Warning: "The Insider" may be hazardous to telling the truth.

Blown Away

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A meager number of films based on real events actually turn out to be as absorbing as the events they retell. Perhaps that's why I was so blown away by "The Insider." Powerful and provocative, this attempt to clear the air surrounding the landmark class action suit against Big Tobacco features terrific, restrained performances from Al Pacino and Christopher Plummer as well as an Oscar-worthy turn from Russell Crowe as the industry whistle-blower.

If you are unfamiliar with the name Jeffrey Wigand, let me briefly introduce him. Wigand is the former Brown & Williamson head of research and development who became the central witness in the landmark case between Mississippi (and 49 other states) and the tobacco industry. That case was recently settled for a whopping $246 billion.

Today, Wigand's viewed as something of a hero. In 1996, he was the arrow in the industry's Achilles heel. Being that arrow also made him a target. Blowing the whistle on his former employer turned out to be both physically and emotionally dangerous.

When Brown & Williamson fired Wigand for his unwillingness to accept the company's decision to put addictive additives into their product, he taped an interview with "60 Minutes'" Mike Wallace. That potentially devastating interview put producer Lowell Bergman as well as Wallace in the line of fire, too.

It's this confluence of influence, threats and behind-the-scenes machinations that lies at the heart of "The Insider." Not merely some valentine to Wigand, "The Insider" also takes us into the politics of big-time broadcast journalism. At first glance, the movie's title seems to refer solely to Wigand. But viewers will soon learn the depth of that simple descriptor.

Crowe is nothing short of fantastic as Wigand, offering us a conflicted and flawed man. By giving us a Wigand with warts, Crowe and director Michael Mann keep him accessible. Had they painted him as some saintly John of Arc his ordeal would not enrage us. Instead, Crowe wins us over by being human, beset by pangs of guilt and conscience. Thankfully, both Mann and screenwriter Eric Roth forego the melodramatic speeches. What we see in Crowe's subtle performance is a terrifying yet fascinating study in mounting frustration. We are mesmerized, watching how one decision snowballs into a devastating list of personal sacrifices.

As both Wigand's protector and exploiter, Pacino's portrayal of Bergman hearkens back to the actor's earlier, better work. Even though I enjoyed "Heat," Pacino's last collaboration with Mann, the actor seemed mired in his over-the-top stage. To his credit and our pleasure, Pacino eschews that predilection here. Plummer, who also has a few stinky roles in his film bio, turns in a terrific performance as Wallace.

Besides keeping his actors firmly grounded in reality, Mann also keeps "The Insider" moving at a brisk pace. Considering its running time of two-and-a-half hours, that's quite a feat. Mann also gets to display his own talents at creating just the right visual atmosphere for each scene.

Suspenseful, thought-provoking and wonderfully directed and acted, "The Insider" will leave you breathless and

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