ABOUT HALFWAY through The Insider, a man named Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) paces back and forth on a lush green lawn, a spectacular body of water perfectly framed behind him. His body is hunched over with the weight of a dilemma. People watch him expectantly -- reporters and cops and lawyers all wait for him to make a decision. But Wigand doesn't seem to notice. He's lost in his own mind.

This is the type of film Michael Mann loves making: movies about brooding, where men spend a considerable amount of time lost inside themselves, isolated from the world surrounding them. It's a theme he's explored throughout his career, from Miami Vice to Heat, and one that rears its head repeatedly in The Insider, his riveting -- if amazingly unbelievable -- new film.

Despite the ad campaigns, The Insider is not an indictment of big, evil tobacco. The real story of the film is one of bungled journalism and broken integrity, with a healthy dose of paranoia thrown in for good measure. In the process of telling that story, Mann and co-writer Eric Roth manage to slap the faces of both 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace and creator Don Hewitt, two of the most respected men in TV journalism, for treating the risky confessions of a tobacco company insider as disposable.

The story of whistle blowers getting fucked over has been told so many times (remember Karen Silkwood?), it's a wonder people still come forward at all. But that's exactly what Jeffrey Wigand did in 1995 when he was approached by 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). A seasoned TV veteran, Bergman stroked and sweet-talked Wigand until he was willing to go on record, putting himself at considerable risk by breaking a "confidentiality agreement" he had with his legally fortified former employer, tobacco giant Brown & Williamson. CBS then chose to leave him dangling in the wind -- and it's this decision that The Insider focuses on.

This brings us back to the moment mentioned earlier as Wigand paces on a plush green lawn, facing a decision. The brooding moment. Wigand suddenly stops, and pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

"Fuck it," he says.

A classic Michael Mann moment: brooding, then action. It's a moment repeated later as Bergman stands on the beach of some tropical paradise trying to sort through the mess his potential Pulitzer-winning story has become. It's a mess created by the CBS higher-ups, who, afraid the Wigand interview would lead to a hefty lawsuit from Brown & Williamson, decide to air an edited-down and gutted segment instead -- a decision that leaves Wigand wide-open for a smear campaign. So Bergman stands on the beach, staring out at the big, beautiful ocean, brooding... brooding... before finally picking up the phone and springing into action.

As a big-budget Hollywood drama, or perhaps even a thriller, The Insider is just about as perfect as you can get. Mann is one of the best technical directors around, able to put together a glossy-looking film without it appearing like one big commercial. Every performance in the film, from those of Russell Crowe and Al Pacino, to Christopher Plummer's brilliant rendition of Mike Wallace, will undoubtedly be deemed Oscar-worthy at the end of the year. However, as a dramatization of actual events? Mann's important opus is pretty unbelievable.

Though meant to be a cautionary tale about media accountability and how easily good journalism can be corrupted, The Insider is far too slick, and comes across as typical Hollywood mayhem instead of the "based-on-actual-events" drama originally intended. The heavy-handed brooding which has served Mann so well in the past undermines any sort of realism the film tries to achieve. This, in itself, does not make it a bad film, just unreliable. And when given the choice between a believable movie and an entertaining one, I'll choose entertaining every time.