The Insider is the most vital movie about American journalism since All the President's Men. But, unlike the white-knights-to-the-rescue-of-democracy tale of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the news for muckraking reporters in Michael Mann's film isn't so upbeat. The Insider may be centered on the machinations of Big Tobacco, but it's also about Big Money and how it compromises the ideal of a free press.

Adapted by Mann and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) from a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, The Insider is the true story of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a scientist at the Brown & Williamson tobacco company who was fired after he refused to cooperate with the company's plans to chemically boost the effect of nicotine. Wigand has been coerced into signing a strict confidentiality agreement in order to hang onto the health benefits he needs for his severely asthmatic daughter, but he still feels compelled to anonymously send some incriminating documents to '60 Minutes' producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). Bergman tracks down Wigand and persuades him to tape an interview with veteran star correspondent Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer). The pressures mount on the bitter, withdrawn scientist: Shadowy figures follow him, he begins receiving death threats, and his socialite wife-buckling under the tension-leaves him. Then, Wigand's hope of being vindicated collapses: Lawyers for CBS, which is about to be sold to Westinghouse, urge '60 Minutes' executive producer Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) to shelve the Wigand interview, fearing a lawsuit over 'tortious interference' that could bankrupt the network. To Bergman's amazement, Hewitt and Wallace agree to drop the story, or at least water it down. Wigand, meantime, becomes the target of a wicked smear campaign by Brown & Williamson, and withdraws to an isolated hotel room, nearly a broken man. Disgusted by this turn of events, Bergman turns on his employers, helping to bring Wigand's allegations to The Wall Street Journal and exposing CBS' cowardice in The New York Times.

It's a little odd to see a media colossus like The Walt Disney Company making movies about corporate greed and corruption such as A Civil Action and The Insider, but so be it. The Insider doesn't say anything new about the nervy disingenuousness of the tobacco companies in regard to the addictive powers of nicotine, but it does perform a service by spreading the shocking news about their calculated manipulation of their product's potency. Reluctant or not, Jeffrey Wigand is a hero who deserves to be at the center of a movie simply by virtue of the forces aligned against him. But the larger story here is how those same forces caused a powerful TV network, with much greater resources at its disposal, to squelch an important story impacting the health of millions of citizens. Granted, the film perhaps too naively buys into the aura CBS News has built around itself since the hallowed days of Edward R. Murrow ('60 Minutes' and its many imitators have always been just as much about show biz as about journalism), but the majority of Americans still get the bulk of their news from television, and The Insider issues a potent warning about the influences filtering the information they get.

Director Mann (Heat, The Last of the Mohicans) and his frequent cinematographer Dante Spinotti work in an impressionistic visual style that encompasses small background details and secondary characters, a style that's well-suited for the big story he's trying to tell. Their restless camera also fits the paranoia that Wigand rightly feels through much of his odyssey. Though a highly visual filmmaker, Mann doesn't neglect his cast of top-flight actors. Pacino turns in another ferocious performance as Bergman, a passionate left-leaning news producer who's found a powerful outlet for his investigative skills but ultimately discovers the limits of such a popular and profitable forum. Crowe is a revelation as Wigand; the 35-year-old Australian added inches to his waistline and gray to his hair to play the 52-year-old Wigand, in a performance that's full of brooding complexity, intelligence and fury. Plummer comes close to stealing the film as Mike Wallace (who, it must be said, changed his mind about the Wigand report much quicker than the film would have us believe). Though Plummer doesn't look much like Wallace, he captures the veteran newsman's prima-donna bluster with a sly wit deserving of an Oscar nomination. Diane Venora is compelling in the largely unsympathetic role of Wigand's non-supportive wife; Michael Gambon makes a cobra-like tobacco-company boss; Gina Gershon is all business, but with style, as a CBS lawyer; and Bruce McGill has an impressively thunderous courtroom confrontation as a Missisippi state attorney fighting Brown & Williamson.

The Insider might have been an even more effective cautionary tale had it been shorter, but that would have meant sacrificing some of Mann's moody, off-kilter rhythms. It almost feels right that this story of half-hearted crusaders and jittery journalists doesn't come in a neat, tidy package.

--Kevin Lally