"The Insider" (1999)
"Heat" may have gotten the most attention, pairing as it did Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for the first time (and it's undoubtedly a great film), but ask us what our favorite Michael Mann film is, and we'd have to lean towards his gripping based-in-fact "The Insider." Going behind the scenes of the tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s, it focuses on the relationship between CBS producer Lowell Bergman (Pacino) and former tobacco executive Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), who agrees to turn whistleblower after being fired, but is blocked at every turn by his former employers. Thanks to a script by Mann and Eric Roth which makes the legal complexities totally clear, while remaining gripping, the human cost of what Wigand is doing never escapes us. Mann's in top form as well, giving what could be a talky drama a visual zip, with some of Dante Spinotti's finest work ever, and the score by Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard, is haunting. But it's the performances that really make it sing: it's one of Pacino's more restrained performances of recent years, with Shouty Al only rarely raising his head, and Christopher Plummer is terrific as anchor Mike Wallace. But the MVP is Russell Crowe. Playing 20 years older than his then age (in a part initially earmarked for Val Kilmer, allegedly), he's almost unrecognizable from the lithe killing machine he'd be seen as six months later in "Gladiator," here he really sells Wigand as a fundamentally good person with a dark streak, and it's impossible not to feel sympathy for him as his life falls apart around him. [A]

The Informant!” (2009)
Having already succeeded with a fairly straightforward character-based whistleblower picture in "Erin Brockovich" and wisely realizing "The Insider" is still an untouchable milestone in this genre, Steven Soderbergh realized the only logical entry point for the story of agricultural price-fixing tattle-tale Mark Whitacre was through comedy. Indebted to the '70s in more ways than one -- the hilariously goofy Marvin Hamlisch score, the groovy font title cards throughout and the non-traditional narrative filled with minor character crises --"The Informant!" is an amusing homage to that era. Featuring a portly Matt Damon in the lead as a cheerful, bi-polar, Midwestern bio-chemist, the picture doesn't follow a three act structure as much as it just layers whopping fib on top of gigantic lie wrapped up in ridiculous fabrication; soon enough it's impossible to tell what's fact or fiction. Aside from the score and wickedly sly off-topic voice-over, Soderbergh plays it all deliciously straight and matter-of-fact, and Damon seems to relish playing the apogee of unreliable narrators who actually thinks he's some sort of spy. The whole thing is rounded out by a strong supporting cast that conveys various levels of disbelief and ridicule -- Melanie Lynskey in particular does a subtly strong job as Mark's supportive wife. Unorthodox enough to be generally out of step with modern-day audiences (it didn't exactly clean up at the box-office), nevertheless, "The Informant!" is a devilishly funny little riff and another picture in a long line of Soderbergh-ian experiments in a sub-genre. [B]

"The Whistle Blower" (1987)
Drab and stodgy in parts and feeling rather dated due to its stifling preoccupation with the British class system, "The Whistle Blower" does have one huge thing going for it: Michael Caine's performance. Perhaps because he has been around so long, been in a fair few absolute stinkers and is so eminently impersonate-able (who among us is not guilty of having hazarded the odd "you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off"), it's somehow easy to forget that under the mannerisms, the accent, the 'national treasure' status, there is a truly fine actor. That his performance elevates an otherwise rather turgid expose of the British Secret Service's double dealings and class snobbery into something watchable and at times even compelling is no faint praise: he brings real subtlety, restraint and dignity to his portrayal of Frank Jones, an ex-serviceman exposing the corruption and amoral politicking that led to the murder of his son. If approached as a human drama, therefore, the film works much better than as a thriller- it is as much about Jones's disillusionment with his government and his growing, if belated, understanding of his son's politics as it is about car chases or spy games. A host of British character actors lend able support, if mostly in rather one-note roles: James Fox, Gordon Jackson and John Gielgud are never less than good value, but this is Caine's show and he steals it. His small but devastating portrayal of a man grieving the loss of a son, and of a faith that he had previously fought and killed for, has to rank as one of the actor's finest moments to date. Shame the rest of the film falls short. [B-]