Even as Heat was hot of the presses, Michael Mann was already gearing up for his next project: it was in late 1995 that an professional acquaintance of his named Lowell Bergman, an investigating reporter for 60 Minutes, was caught up in a nasty bit of business concerning a former Big Tobacco executive gone whistleblower, and the heavily redacted version of his story which the CBS legal team insisted be aired in place of the actual interview that Mike Wallace had conducted with said whistleblower. Between the airing of the edited story in November and the airing of the complete interview in February of '96, Mann had approached Bergman about the possibility of turning the story into a movie.

Even so, it took until late 1999 for that movie to finally reach theaters, the longest gap yet between any of Mann's projects. I cannot say what the filmmaker did in all that time (production started in 1998), but whatever it was, it was time well spent. For the resultant film, The Insider, is a miracle - the notoriously precise filmmaker's most carefully assembled movie yet, in which not a single shot could be improved in either lighting or framing; nor is there even a single cut that could be moved by so much as a frame without damaging the exactitude of its placement. For the first time in 18 years, since his very first theatrical feature, Mann had on his hands a stone masterpiece. And if I yet conisder that debut, Thief, to be my favorite of Mann's films, it is only by the slimmest of margins, and at least in part because of the romantic fact that it was his first; for by all means, The Insider is of that rarest of cinematic pantheons, a motion picture that is, in all essentials, perfect.

It has, to begin with, the finest cast Mann ever put together: Al Pacino in the last restrained and truly great performance of his career before he transmogrified into a great hock of cured ham in the '00s plays Lowell Bergman; Russell Crowe, still piping hot after his breakthrough in L.A. Confidential, gives by far the best performance of his career as Jeffrey Wigand, the whistleblower; Christopher Plummer is absolutely magnificent and completely unrecognisable as Mike Wallace; and filling in the gaps are brilliant character actors from Philip Baker Hall to Michael Gambon, Gina Gershon to Bruce McGill.

The story is structured, more or less, into two parts with an introduction and an epilogue. The first half of the movie centers around Wigand, and his ambivalence about speaking on the record against Brown & Williamson, his former employers; as they make increasingly threatening gestures towards him and his family, his resolve to stick it to them where it hurts becomes stronger and stronger, although his choice to speak with Wallace and serve as witness in a Mississippi legal proceeding ends up costing him greatly. The second half switches over to Bergman and the situation that arises when the CBS lawyers calculate the possible cost of a lawsuit from Brown & Williamson, as Bergman finds himself the One Good Journalist standing against the system, even watching his friend and mentor Mike Wallace caving in to pressure.

It is a narrative that is mythologically true more than it is factually accurate, perhaps; the exact details of what happened behind locked doors will never be known to the rest of us, but Wallace certainly did not hesitate to slam Bergman and the movie for misrepresenting his actions during that time. Still, what is the point of factual accuracy, I ask. The truth of what happened is ultimately less important than the fact that it happened at all, and however it came to pass that Wigand spoke against the avaricious behavior of Big Tobacco, what matters is that he at long last did.

By reducing the story to such simplified, and maybe untrue, framework, Mann has given it the quality of a fable, with the moral, "It is hard to do the right thing without support; but it is necessary to do it anyway." Nowhere in his career does Mann's pet theme of a man's code of behavior coming into conflict with his reality shine more brilliantly than here. His twin protagonists and their struggles are the finest, most immediately gripping subjects he has ever tackled in a story; men who are both extremely personal and at the same time archetypes for an entire stratum of American manhood.

The screenplay is, generally speaking, Mann's best - impossibly, given that he co-wrote it with Eric Roth, the mercenary behind clusterfucks like Forrest Gump and The Postman. The two-part structure is unexpected, but quite elegantly carried off, transition from one lead to the other so quickly and smoothly that you hardly realise what's happened. And even the fact of having two leads is done with a certain grace: Wigand and Bergman's individual arcs inform one another even better than the cop-and-thief dualities do in L.A. Takedown and Heat, where he had already done quite a fine job of managing two protagonists in a way that was compelling and rewarding.

The comparison between Heat and The Insider is in most ways an informative one. By all means, Heat was made by a man who knew exactly what he wanted, and how to get it. The Insider is, nevertheless, an improvement in every way. As controlled as Heat may have been - and it is an exceptionally tight example of the director's discipline - The Insider altogether implies a far stronger, surer hand guiding the proceedings; it is a film that could only be made by a director at the height of his powers who knew to a certainty that he was, indeed, at the height of his powers; the work of a self-confident master.

Mann's confidence would appear to have rubbed off on Dante Spinotti, working with the director for the fourth consecutive feature and reaching his own career apotheosis. If I am correct in my musing that every Mann film in the last several years has been at some level an experiment, The Insider's most innovative touch is the way that focal depth and light are used throughout, controlling what we are able or inclined to look at, and at what time we are able to look at it, aggressive and never once even slightly off-key. There are focus racks in this film that gave me shudders up the back of my spine, so unexpected and yet perfectly attuned to the emotional needs of that moment in the story were they. Do I reveal myself as a snob, or a techie geek, or just a very weird person by saying that? Then let me so reveal myself, for the control over focal depth that Mann and Spinotti exhibit in The Insider , and what it does for the story, forces me to pull out the biggest and most serious adjective in my Critic's Bag O' Adjectives: Wellesian. The Insider is a thoroughly Wellesian motion picture. I have said it, I shall not seek to unsay it.

If one could pick but a single film and call it the culmination of all Mann's skills, preoccupations and talents, it would be this. His mythic treatment of masculinity had never been so elemental (odd, that it should be in his first film based entirely upon historical events), his treatment of procedure never before so engaged with tiny details (for example the marvelous opening scene of Bergman in Iran: serves little narrative purpose, but as a perfect microcosm of how he functions in his job, and it this that shall define him for the rest of the film), his imagery never before so steady-handed and precise. "Perfect" I said before; well, I like to think that I don't hand "perfect" out easily, but when it's earned, it is earned. In every respect save, maybe, factual, The Insider is as perfect as any American movie from the high-water mark year of contemporary cinema that was 1999.