Tobacco company accuses Disney of distorting facts
By Michael White
Associated Press (November 13, 1999)
LOS ANGELES -- Cigarette maker Brown & Williamson Tobacco is accusing The Walt Disney Co. of maliciously distorting the truth in a new movie chronicling the struggles of a tobacco industry whistleblower.
In a full-page newspaper ad, Brown & Williamson contends that ``The Insider'' wrongly suggests that the tobacco company threatened the life of former B&W executive Jeffrey Wigand.
``They said we committed a crime -- threatening someone is criminal activity,'' said Mark Smith, a Brown & Williamson spokesman. ``We're very concerned about it. We're considering our options, in terms of a lawsuit.''
The film, released last week, focuses on Wigand and a battle within CBS over whether to air a ``60 Minutes'' story about his allegations that tobacco companies manipulated nicotine levels in cigarettes and lied about their addictive power.
The ad in Friday's Wall Street Journal was partly an attempt to counter appearances by Wigand and others promoting the movie, Smith said. The other motive was to get the attention of Disney executives, who ignored Brown & Williamson's attempt to get the script changed, he said.
A Disney spokesman said the film was a responsible telling of Wigand's story, and includes a disclaimer saying there is no known connection between Brown & Williamson and the threats against Wigand.
``The film itself never suggests who might have been behind the threats,'' John Dreyer said.
Brown & Williamson's ire is focused primarily on two scenes. In one, Wigand finds a bullet in his mailbox and a note threatening him and his children. In the other, he is trailed by a menacing figure.
Filmmakers have acknowledged that the second scene is fiction, created for dramatic effect. Wigand actually reported finding a bullet and threatening note in his mailbox. An FBI agent who investigated the incident suggested in a federal affidavit that Wigand might have put it there himself.
Even so, B&W probably would have a tough time winning a libel action against Disney, legal experts said.
The company would have to prove not only that the events depicted in the film were false, but that Disney knew they were untrue and published them with ``reckless disregard for the truth,'' said Doug Mirell, who teaches libel law at the University of Southern California.
``That is traditionally a very difficult burden to meet,'' he said.
Another problem is that writers and filmmakers generally are given license when dealing with historical events and large institutions such as Brown & Williamson -- which, under law, is considered a public figure.
The ad wasn't Brown & Williamson's first action involving the movie. Last weekend company representatives went to ``The Insider'' screenings in eight cities and handed out cards asking patrons to call a toll-free number and answer questions about the film.
Such tactics indicate that Brown & Williamson may be unsure of its chances of winning a lawsuit, Mirell said.
``It would seem to me that going the step of placing a full-page ad like this in a publication like The Wall Street Journal may be telegraphing the point that really what Brown & Williamson wants to do is get their side of the story out rather than tie themselves up in a major lawsuit,'' he said.
Brown & Williamson's Response to 'The Insider'
LOUISVILLE, Ky., Nov. 8, 1999
Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation has released the following statement in response to the release of the film "The Insider."
Warning: Viewing This Movie
Will Be Hazardous To the Truth
"The Insider" is another example of Hollywood's inability to separate fact from fiction. In what are referred to by the entertainment industry as "docudramas" - the dramatization of supposed real events -- the first casualties are always the truth and the reputations of individuals and corporations. Regrettably, "The Insider" is no exception.
The film clearly suggests that Brown & Williamson threatened former employee Jeffrey Wigand. We state here categorically that Brown & Williamson did not threaten Wigand or his family in any way. We did not send threatening messages, we did not have him tailed and we did not put a bullet in his mailbox as the film suggests.
Now a previously sealed FBI sworn affidavit uncovered late last month by the news media confirms this. The FBI and a federal judge concluded that there was probable cause to believe that Wigand himself placed the bullet in the mailbox along with a note threatening his children. The FBI sworn affidavit concludes that Wigand's official statement to the FBI detailing circumstances surrounding his supposed receipt of a death threat were "untrue and misleading and in violation of federal law" which makes it a crime to lie to federal investigators.
Brown & Williamson has sent copies of the FBI's sworn affidavit to Touchstone Films and its parent company, Disney. Several months ago, the company sent to the film's producers copies of Steven Brill's Content magazine which had reported that Wigand's wife said the threatening messages were "total fiction."
Neither the FBI's report, Mrs. Wigand's accounts, independent media reporting or our statements have seemed to make any difference in the portrayal in the film of alleged threats against Wigand. In fact, the Los Angeles Times has quoted the film's screenwriter, Eric Roth, as admitting that some scenes - including one where a man at a golf course at night appears to be tailing Wigand -- were invented. Roth said the scenes were invented to "get into the psychology of terror." It's obvious that Wigand, CBS, and Disney all have invented the "psychology of terror" for their own purposes.
Disney and Touchstone try to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the many inaccuracies in the movie by using a disclaimer. Touchstone states, "Although the film 'The Insider' is based on a true story, certain events depicted in the film have been fictionalized for dramatic effect." Disney also admits in a postscript at the end of the movie that there is some doubt about the accuracy of the death threats repeatedly used in the film for dramatic effect.
Such disclaimers are too little too late. No disclaimer can overcome the effect of such scenes on the audience, particularly where an actor of Al Pacino's stature asserts repeatedly "he's telling the truth." The audience will ignore these disclaimers and be left with a false impression of what actually happened.
What Wigand Really Said Under Oath
The entire premise of the film - that former Brown & Williamson employee Jeffrey Wigand exposed unlawful conduct on the part of Brown & Williamson - is wrong. Wigand, under oath, told the U.S. Justice Department in 1994 that he was not aware of any criminal or fraudulent behavior by Brown & Williamson. He repeated this again under oath in 1996 and 1998.
In fact, the U.S. Justice Department dropped its criminal investigation against Brown & Williamson and the other tobacco companies -- and found no wrongdoing.
We provided Disney and its film production studio, Touchstone Films, with copies of these sworn depositions more than a year ago. They've ignored us.
And the facts.
We are accused in the film of smearing Wigand to undermine his credibility as a witness, but, the real question should be "Who is smearing who?" Wigand made serious allegations that most news media accepted at face value. We were trying to get the news media to look in to the credibility of the man and his allegations. He had been fired and was clearly disgruntled. In addition, he had a history of dishonesty. The FBI says he lied. When we finally got Wigand under oath, he retracted the allegations.
Brill's Content, which is one of the few media outlets that objectively dealt with Wigand's credibility, has this to say:
"In real life, Wigand is an elusive figure. His accounts of his own saga have twisted and turned over time. For example, Wigand has denied under oath virtually everything attributed to him in Vanity Fair ... Wigand's sworn testimony is also riddled with contradictions, and he has admitted that some of his most damaging allegations about B&W ... were wrong."
The film touts Wigand as "the key witness on the biggest public health reform issue in U.S. history." The fact is that Wigand has testified in only one tobacco trial and that was in Muncie, Indiana in February 1998. Wigand was finally subject to cross-examination in a courtroom in front of a jury. His accusations were not believed by the jury and the trial resulted in a unanimous verdict for the tobacco industry. Wigand has not testified in any trial since.
What Do Others Portrayed in the Film Say?
Many involved in this story -- including CBS's "60 Minutes" newsman Mike Wallace -- have said the film is distorted and inaccurate. "Where does the truth end and entertainment begin? Wallace asks, adding, "What are the ethics of docudrama?" A "60 Minutes" producer puts it, "This movie is purely about putting fannies in seats and has nothing to do with the truth." Even film director Michael Mann has admitted: "In the realm of drama, you change everything ... "
What Should We Expect?
Brown & Williamson is a cigarette manufacturer. We have been in the tobacco business for more than 100 years.
Brown & Williamson has led the industry in providing more information about our products, our positions on the important issues of smoking and health, addiction and youth smoking and in providing guidance to smokers on how to quit smoking. We will continue to address important issues such as these frankly and openly.
We regard ourselves as a professionally and ethically managed business seeking to be regarded by all our stakeholders as responsible. This movie has certainly set us back, but it has in no way diminished our desire and motivation to achieve that objective.
What should we expect? From Disney, probably very little; they after all are in the entertainment business. But in a country that prides itself on freedom and open mindedness, we believe the public deserves far more than this sensationalized and defamatory movie offers.
For additional information on "The Insider" and other issues, visit www.brownandwilliamson.com The "Main Street" homepage click on "Hot Topics" building and select "The Insider."
ROSENBERG ON TV: Inside The Insider
By Howard Rosenberg (11/9/99)
copyright 1999, Los Angeles Times
That praised new movie, "The Insider," has more layers than lasagna.
On top is a moving, pulsating, even scary fact-shaped story about good in the persons of Al Pacino as former "60 Minutes" segment producer Lowell Bergman and Russell Crowe as whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand vs. the evil of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. and censoring corporate brigands at CBS.
It goes something like this: Bergman, one of the best reporters in the business, builds a powerful "60 Minutes" expose of alleged B&W deceit about tobacco hazards, with former company scientist Wigand as the crucial on-camera source.
Nervous in part about a confidentiality agreement Wigand signed when leaving B&W, CBS Inc. puts the kibosh on running his interview. Usually fearless "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt sides with CBS. Usually fearless Mike Wallace initially does, too. Says Wallace emphatically: "Im with Don on this." Only Bergman fights for it to air.
"60 Minutes" instead runs a timid and vague Big Tobacco piece that doesnt mention Wigands name. It runs the Wigand interview only months later, after his comments become public record in an anti-tobacco lawsuit, and after other media report much of his story.
Bergman is furious about this entire chapter and feels betrayed. Wigand is devastated.
Run credits, go home.
"The Insider," however, is much more than a good guys/bad guys tug-of-war over a single story. At its heart is a cautionary tale about conflict-of-interest perils in todays ever-incestuous media sprawl, one in which corporate marriages and alliances relate everyone on some level to nearly everyone else. Often, reporters arent even aware of the ties.
This sinkhole is not unfamiliar to the Los Angeles Times, following stunning revelations that its Oct. 10 Sunday Magazine devoted to the new Staples Center was prepared by the papers editorial staff, unaware of an agreement to split half the profits with the center, something publisher Kathryn Downing has acknowledged was a mistake.
"The Insider" brings the issue of ethics vs. economics into even higher relief. In his interview with Bergman, Wigand had accused Thomas Sandefur, then president of B&W, of perjury when joining other tobacco CEOs in telling Congress they did not believe nicotine was addictive. He also charged the company with aborting his search for safer cigarettes and firing him after he protested its use of a cancer-causing flavor additive in pipe tobacco.
Although B&W issued denials across the board, Bergman, Wallace and Hewitt had sufficient confidence in Wigand to plan running his damaging interview.
Until corporate CBS interceded. By the way, when CBS did kill the Wigand interview, the network was controlled by Laurence Tisch and his family. The Tisches also ran Lorillard Inc., a tobacco company that was negotiating with B&W to purchase several cigarette brands. And Tischs son was one of the tobacco CEOs who had testified before Congress along with B&Ws Sandefur.
Perhaps even more telling, "The Insider" notes that CBS Inc. feared that a threatened B&W multibillion-dollar lawsuit over the Wigand interview would kill a pending sale of the network to Westinghouse Electric. That sale was expected to earn top CBS executives millions from stock options, and later did.
As critics everywhere are pointing out, "The Insider" should not be taken entirely at face value.
Hewitt and Wallace have accused director Michael Mann of dramatic license in the extreme, of colluding with Bergman, a consultant on the film and a friend of Mann, to make him a hero at their expense.
B&W has weighed in, too, charging that Wigand lied, for example, about the death threats against him that are in the film. Big Tobacco yes, thats a group you can trust.
How fragile credibility is. The movies hyperbole notwithstanding, who would not be suspicious of the networks motives in quashing the Wigand interview? True or not, the conflicts-of-interest scenario has a plausibility that cant be ignored. And because perceptions often blend into reality, its no wonder that Americans appear increasingly skeptical about media integrity.
At least theyre now seeing a bit of the hard work reporters put in, for "The Insider" is also the first movie since "All the Presidents Men" to project a true sense of the tedious groundwork often underlying the best journalism.
Alan J. Pakulas 1976 political thriller put a relentless tail on Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they investigated Watergate, slogging with them through a thick swamp of frustrating missteps, blind alleys, rebuffs, stammering phone interviews and monotonous detail work en route to front-page glory and a Pulitzer.
The result was glamorous, but not the laborious process that got them there, even though Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman were the actors playing these reporters on the screen.
Contrast that with the usual depictions of either news herds rushing toward a story as mindless monoliths or fearless types gathering and reporting information in a single blinding flash of action without ever taking a note or writing a line of copy.
This fantasy also clashes with "The Insider," which blows the lid off the notion that TV newsmagazines and much of network news are largely the sum of their on-camera stars. Although other TV magazines have joined "60 Minutes" in giving on-screen credit to field producers, viewers still have no way of knowing the extent of this collaboration. Or how much of the marrow of these stories is owed to unseen, largely anonymous personnel like Bergman, who do much of the reporting before celebrity journalists step before the lens.
"The Insider" sharpens that picture, even though Bergmans partner on the B&W piece as it was on most of his stories was Wallace, reportedly among the "60 Minutes" correspondents most actively involved in the stories theyre seen reporting.
And party now to a tobacco story dispute that lingers like a hacking cough.
Everybody gets burned in 'The Insider'
By Bob Strauss
1999, Los Angeles Daily News
LOS ANGELES Director Michael Mann has a reputation for pugnacity. But even this hard-nosed Chicago guy, who created TVs "Miami Vice" and such films as "Thief" and "Heat," seems weary of the controversy thats dogged his latest movie, the critically acclaimed "The Insider."
"Excuse me while I go to sleep," the 56-year-old Mann jokes when asked, for the umpteenth time, to respond to complaints lodged by "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt and correspondent Mike Wallace about "The Insider," which details the infamous tobacco industry whistle-blower expose that damaged the venerable news programs own hard-hitting reputation.
"Its hard to ask a filmmaker who has spent two years making a motion picture which is NOT about 60 Minutes to react to the misguided, and I think somewhat obsessive concern about self-image of some secondary characters."
Secondary characters who are, nevertheless, the recognizable celebrities in a long, complicated story steeped in scientific, legal and ethical minutiae.
The film cant even be synopsized quickly. But basically, "60 Minutes" investigative reporter and segment producer Lowell Bergman, who is played by Al Pacino, thought he had the scoop of the decade when he convinced Jeffrey Wigand, the ex-research-and-development head of the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, to spill everything he knew about Big Tobacco in a taped interview with Wallace. This included contradicting tobacco CEOs congressional testimony that they did not believe cigarettes were addictive and revelations of nicotine-level manipulations that made their products harder to kick.
Before the segment aired, however, B&W threatened the shows network, CBS, with potentially devastating lawsuits. "60 Minutes" was faced with sacrificing journalistic integrity to corporate pressure. The CBS lawyers and, by extension, B&W won the first round; a watered-down segment that did not mention Wigands name, show his face or include his most devastating revelations, was broadcast, accompanied by Wallaces denunciation of his networks decision.
A fuller version of the interview was aired later, when it was safe; Wigands deposition in the case that eventually resulted in the states attorneys generals $246 billion judgment against the tobacco industry had been leaked to the press and at that point was public record.
The film depicts Bergmans efforts to get the segment aired and protect his source and with all the power never-before-beaten Big Tobacco had to throw at the former, confidentiality-agreement-breaking employee, Wigand was in a horrendously vulnerable position while processing his own feelings of betrayal. Wallace and Hewitt are shown initially siding with their own corporate powers and agreeing to truncate the report.
Pretty complicated, huh? Add to that a rather iffy second protagonist as played by the talented Australian actor Russell Crowe ("L.A. Confidential"), Wigand comes off as a well-meaning but furtive, depressive and unstable individual and you need a sexy character like Wallace to goose audience interest now and again.
Although he hadnt seen the finished film at the time of this writing Mann refused to screen it for the "60 Minutes" camp, which he feels has attacked the film too severely based on what he says were early script drafts Wallace has reportedly heard enough about his portrayal to have warmed a bit toward it in recent days (see accompanying story).
At the very least, he couldnt ask for a more charming doppleganger than Christopher Plummer. The accomplished Canadian stage and screen actor, whose portrayal of Capt. Von Trapp in "The Sound of Music" has endeared him to generations of moviegoers, portrays Wallace with sly wit, steely intelligence, passion and, ultimately, a solid sense of whats right and wrong. (Hewitt, on the other hand, is set up as more of a corporate lackey; Philip Baker Hall, the actor who plays him, reportedly has some problems with the finished film).
"I think he lands in a very human position," Plummer says of his Wallace performance. "If he complains that he didnt waffle which of course, he has admitted that he did, publicly it doesnt matter. Why is he so worried about that? Its a very human thing to do.
"I mean, if I or you (thought) your career or image was going to be shattered on the floor because some Big Brother came along and threatened to sue you, I would pause for a second," adds Plummer, who found Wallace charming and funny when they did a radio interview many years ago. "They only paused for a little while, and then they changed their minds and did the right thing. What on Earth is he complaining about? I think its because he doesnt have much control over this thing, and he loves control."
So, according to the movie, does Lowell Bergman, who left "60 Minutes" after the Wigand incident and now produces documentaries for PBS and teaches at UC Berkeley. A friend of Manns they met through a mutual DEA connection when Mann executive-produced the Emmy-winning TV miniseries "Drug Wars: The Camarena Story" Bergman supplied the key real-life players point-of-view for "The Insider."
"Some of its absolutely right on the money," Bergman says of the film, which its makers admit changes the actual sequence of certain key events for dramatic purposes. "Overall, its an accurate representation of what happened emotionally, psychologically and in terms of the issues and the forces that were at work at the time. Its not a documentary, though."
And Lowell Bergman is a much more, shall we say, sedate personality than Al Pacino.
"If Als playing you, youre glamorized on some level," Bergman admits.
"Lowell does and doesnt come off as an idealized journalistic hero in the film," Mann allows. "That may be my fault. Theres no wonderful, pompous, philosophical statement; he just tells Mike at the end, What am I gonna tell the guy with the next tough story? "Hang with me and youll be fine maybe?" Lowell does have that integrity. But he is annoying as hell."
"The surprise of the picture was that it did manage to avoid that kind of self-righteous hero type of stuff," Pacino reckons. "Its not about winners and losers, but the very nature of those events. I thought that was unusual in this type of movie.
"Having Lowell Bergman himself as a model helped me tremendously," the Oscar-winning actor admits. "I was able to get some of his take on the various situations that are in the picture, and how he felt about them and where they took him. And of course, Michael Manns guidance kept me from beating my breast."
Russell Crowe did not have the luxury of similar access to his character, Wigand. Oddly enough, the former executives confidentiality agreement was still in effect through much of the films development period, and it prevented him from cooperating with the production in all but a tertiary manner.
This left Crowe in the position of playing someone close to 20 years his senior who thought in scientific terms the actor could barely imagine and who went through profound personal crises Wigands second marriage and high-paying research career were destroyed during the 1995-96 time period the film covers along with profound harassment and threat of legal action from his former employers camp.
Plus, he talked funny.
"In cinematic terms, if you speak like Jeffrey does, youre supposed to be shoving dead bodies into the trunks of cars or pulling stockings over your face to do the bank job," Crowe about of the Bronx-bred Wigands accent. "So Im like, Michael, he cant talk like this and be a scientist! No ones gonna believe it, man! And on top of that, Jeffrey hadnt worked in the tobacco industry prior to moving to Louisville, Ky., so every word in his vocabulary that refers to smoking is in a Southern accent.
"So, there were some very long conversations that we had. At the end of the day, Michael didnt require me to impersonate Jeff Wigand. But that just wasnt comfortable for me; it was like saying, Think Ill play Abraham Lincoln with a moustache. I knew that if I put on weight, it would help me with the age thing, then I bleached my hair seven times. If I sat and watched this movie and I didnt see Jeff Wigand, then Id be shown up as not being able to do my gig. When I finally watched it, I did see Jeff a couple of times; that was fine for me."
While he certainly appreciated Crowes performance, fine wasnt exactly how Wigand felt when he watched "The Insider."
"The movie takes a lot and compresses it," says Wigand, whose jumpy, intense personality bears some witness to his ordeal. "The fidelity of it is pretty accurate, but some of its details are creative. For instance, the scene at the driving range (in which Wigand is shadowed at night by a lone fellow golfer) never happened. However, was I followed? Oh yes, most certainly. Was it somebody employed by Brown & Williamson who was an ex-FBI agent? Yes. Was my matrimonial attorneys office tossed? Yes. Was my attorney in Washington, D.C.s car broken into and her records on me taken out? Yes. Was my briefcase taken by a Brown & Williamson lawyer while I was giving depositions in Louisville? Yes. Does that moment in the movie at the driving range capture all that? Yes, it does."
Of course, both the tobacco company and CBS maintain that "The Insider" contains many inaccuracies.
"You understand, this is all public record," Mann says in the films defense. "Theres nothing here that the Columbia Journalism Review and The New York Times and everybody else didnt cover. But put yourself in my shoes. Eric Roth (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Forrest Gump") and I decided we wanted to do a drama and not just a docudrama. I didnt want it to be objective, I wanted to take you on a ride being Jeffrey Wigand and Lowell Bergman, because I know that these men got seared by this experience, and it was tremendously dramatic.
"Now, youre constructing a 2*-hour drama. Every minute when Im not intentionally engaging you from Lowell and Jeffreys perspectives, where I go objective, Im diminishing my stated, strategic attempt of how to tell it. Now thats a selective way of telling it, but I also have to be truthful. I cant distort and be untruthful with broad events that occurred. But its what they experienced, Jeffrey and Lowell.
"That means that Mike has to be secondary, and Hewitt has got to be at least tertiary, thats the nature of the drama. And any of them are all free to have told their own stories or do whatever they want to do. But this is the picture that I chose to make."
INSIDER: SELLING A JOURNALISM DRAMA
By MARK JURKOWITZ
c.1999 The Boston Globe
Lowell Bergman isnt exactly a movie buff. He doesnt go to many films, and he walks out on a high percentage of those he does catch. But he gives a hearty thumbs-up to "The Insider," Disneys much-hyped tale of tobacco-industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand and the tortuous battle to get "60 Minutes" to air the interview that cost him his family, his bank account, and nearly his sanity.
"I sat through it. I didnt get restless," Bergman says. "And it wasnt just because Al Pacino was playing me."
As the "60 Minutes" producer who fights to get a reluctant CBS to air Wigands devastating indictment of the tobacco industry, Bergman is a major protagonist in a movie that could be named "The Insider" for another reason. It has the media elites insular fraternity in a tizzy. The buildup to the films Friday opening has consisted of grumbling by "60 Minutes" star Mike Wallace and executive producer Don Hewitt who are depicted as initially caving into corporate pressure to spike the Wigand interview that Disney (which owns rival network ABC) did a hatchet job on their reputations. As the movie makes clear, the Wigand interview finally ran on "60 Minutes" in early 1996.
"It may be a great story. Its not a true story," says Betsy West, CBS vice president for prime-time news. Says Wigand: "The fidelity to actual facts is exceptional."
MEDIA, Page C8
Amid the early buzz about possible Oscar nominations, The Washington Post declared that "The Insider" could spark a "war between giant corporate mega-powers" CBS and Disney. The New York Timess Frank Rich called it "the most high-profile screen account of big-time brand-name journalism since All the Presidents Men. " The current Time magazine devotes an astounding five pages to the "Insider" versus "60 Minutes" controversy. And Monday the prestigious Columbia Journalism School hosted a discussion, with Bergman as one of the panelists, on the topic "Hollywood and Journalism: Uneasy Partners?"
"The Insider" is an ambitious Hollywood effort to examine journalism. "The issue of the censorship of television news is being presented to a mass audience," says Bergman, who now teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. "Its not in a journalism review or alternative publication."
Media scrutiny mixed
Therein lies the rub. When the big screen has tried to scrutinize the morals and methods of its media bretheren, the results have been decidedly mixed. Some films, like "The Front Page" (1931) or "Network" (1976), are classics. Others, like "The Killing Fields" (1984) and "Quiz Show" (1994), win critical acclaim but dont connect with a broad audience. And some, like "Absence of Malice" (1981) or "The Mean Season" (1985), fade into the woodwork.
In fact, Hollywood history suggests that the intelligent and stylish "Insider" will have to overcome a daunting pattern: The more excited the journalistic community gets about a movie, the less likely the public is to flock to the theater.
"None of these things do well," says media and cultural critic Jon Katz of such films. "This movie is really about a conflict between a producer and a TV show. Its one of those classic media brawls that media critics have an orgasm over. But the public doesnt give a hoot."
"I dont think were intrinsically fascinating in the media," adds West, speaking of journalists. "But we do get involved in some fascinating stories."
"The Insider," directed by Michael Mann ("Heat," "The Last of the Mohicans"), does have something of a traditional white hat/black hat tale to tell. Pacinos Bergman is a fiery bastion of journalistic integrity teaming up with the brave and battered Russell Crowe (as Wigand) to challenge both the tobacco industrys efforts to silence Wigand and the amorality of CBS bean-counters who dont want to risk tobaccos wrath by giving Wigand his say.
"First of all, I dont think its just about journalism," says Wigand, who now runs the Smoke-Free Kids foundation in South Carolina and who was recovering from an auto accident this past week. "If you look at this, you walk away (thinking) here is big tobacco trying to intimidate. . . . They go after individuals to keep the truth from coming out."
"I assume (moviegoers) are going to identify with Russell Crowe because I think he does such a complex job of presenting an average American," adds Bergman. "Average people are the heroes in our story."
Explaining that such popular TV shows as "Law and Order" often feature stories of courageous witnesses who are cultivated and then hung out to dry by the authorities, Slate magazine film critic David Edelstein says, "I think Americans will definitely respond to the idea of a whistleblower whos co-opted by media forces who ultimately dont stand by him."
Yet Edelstein also sees "The Insider" as "a big unwieldy piece of work," one that injects confusing issues including journalistic ethics into the melodrama. And many observers say that the movie and media cultures dont mix well.
"Journalists are from Pluto and Hollywood producers are from Jupiter," says media analyst Tom Rosenstiel, explaining that journalists are paid to haggle over details while filmmakers favor sweeping morality plays.
Often, as in the case of films like "The Killing Fields" and 1982s "The Year of Living Dangerously," journalism is just a backdrop to a gripping adventure tale. As Edelstein notes, "its like no one gave a damn" about New York Times correspondent "Sydney Schanbergs dark night of the soul in The Killing Fields. All they cared about was (his loyal assistant) Dith Pran getting out" of the bloody nightmare that was Cambodia in the 1970s.
"The Insider" not only eschews such dramatic plotlines. It tackles the tricky task of providing a birds-eye view of the journalistic sausage factory, with lots of attention to TV editing sessions, reportorial tricks, strategic leaks, and confidentiality agreements. Though "All the Presidents Men" managed to make old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting watchable, Wayne State University film studies instructor Richard Ness wonders "how you get people excited about watching guys taking notes and going through library cards? (You need) a balance of commercial appeal and journalistic ethics."
And at a time when the public holds a distinctly jaundiced view of media behavior, any film that examines journalistic morality as closely as "The Insider" is inherently risky.
"Like the popular legal fiction of a John Grisham, Hollywood treatments of media ethics ought, at best, be seen as a rousing impetus to go out and read the print sources that contain the broader, more nuanced story," says University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign instructor Robert Baird, an expert on the movies treatment of the media.
Its worth noting, however, that those print sources such as the American Journalism Review and the Columbia Journalism Review appeal to niche groups that are tiny slivers of the mass audience that most movies aim for.
When these media observers cite their own choices for the best journalism films, a common theme emerges. The "Front Page" remake "His Girl Friday" (1940), with its near-farcical depiction of cynical and clubby journalists, "had reporters numbers way back when," says Edelstein. Ness, who has written a book cataloguing almost 2,200 films in "which journalists influence the plot," loves "Ace in the Hole." That dark 1951 drama, in which a sensation-seeking reporter delays the rescue of a man trapped in a cave in order to milk the story, foreshadowed todays tabloid culture. And Katz mentions "Network" and "Broadcast News" (1987), two films that viciously skewered television and "captured the loss of values in the media . . . not the inner workings of the media."
In each case, it didnt matter so much whether the journalists were good guys or bad guys just as long as they and their profession were drawn broadly enough to connect viscerally with the audience.
Ness says movies have traditionally sent "a mixed message about the profession." He cites Kirk Douglass role as the slimy reporter in "Ace in the Hole," alongside Humphrey Bogarts portrayal of a courageous crusading editor in 1952s "Deadline USA," as examples of how two contemporaneous films could feature such divergent takes on journalism.
Relating to the press
"Whether movies about journalism are successful or not tends to correlate with how people relate to the press," says Rosenstiel. "The height of depicting the press as heroic came in the 70s. By the 80s or 90s, the journalists dont have lines. Theyre not people, . . . theyre wires and cameras."
This is not one of those times, Rosenstiel adds, when people feel good about the media. Thus it makes sense that in the 70s, "All the Presidents Men" cast superstars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as heroic Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein while in 1999, the surprise comedy hit "Dick" lampooned Woodward and Bernstein as bickering, egomaniacal bumblers.
The question of how the public will feel about the media after "The Insider" is as complex as the movie itself. In it, CBS corporate types give journalism a bad name, Wallace comes off as a complicated if laughably pompous character, and the self-conscious crowing at "60 Minutes" about its reputation and standards may tarnish some of the programs luster. Other characters like a New York Times reporter who has a Pacino leak fall into his hands, or a Wall Street Journal editor who cant figure out whether to do a hatchet job or puff piece on Wigand are likely to trigger ambivalent responses.
Ultimately, the movie has to hope its fate is tied not to those players, but to the viewers gut reaction to the Pacino and Crowe team and their faceoff with the tobacco industry. If that comes across as the defining story line, "The Insider" could catch fire. If the film plays as a journey to the netherworld of big media machinations, it could be a dim memory by Thanksgiving.
"Big-time coastal media is the most narcissistic culture on earth," says Katz. And the new movie "is essentially about the internal workings of a big TV show. In my mind, that dooms it."
"I cant say what it will do to other people," says Wigand. "For me, it is an intense emotional experience. It keeps you on the edge of your seat for 2 hours and 31 minutes."
Drama in the Real
NY Times, 10/29/99
When making a film based on an actual incident, it is necessary to find the dramatic thread that holds the story together, that allows it to be not merely a recitation of facts but a living drama with characters who are fully rounded and who speak to that drama. For Michael Mann, the director of "The Insider," that discovery came when he grasped some fundamental truths about the storys two main characters: Jeffrey Wigand, the former tobacco executive turned whistle-blower, and Lowell Bergman, the "60 Minutes" producer who persuaded him to spill the beans and then fought to get the interview broadcast.
"What I was looking for with Jeffrey was his psychology, what he is obsessive about, what drives the man, why he did what he did," said Mann. "You dont look for how this man is like everybody else. You look for how hes different."
The goal was not to make a documentary with actors, but to make a drama. "The film, as it relates to Jeffrey, has one and only one motive to put you under the skin of Jeffrey, walking in his shoes, through a dramatized battlefield and minefield of the heart," Mann said. "We dont pretend to be, nor do we want to be, the complete historical record."
"The Insider," which is to be released on Nov. 5 and is generating a lot of early Oscar buzz, is not just Wigands story, though. It is also about the relationship between the whistle-blower, played by Russell Crowe, and the producer, played by Al Pacino. And, Mann said, it was in thinking about the characters of the two men that he had the central insight that made the story click for him.
"Theres an answer that was terribly interesting to me," he said, "which gets to the moment when I thought, This truly is a drama and I should make this film. Its when I realized that Jeffrey and Lowell are total opposites even their rhythms were different that it was kind of a beautiful dramatic counterpoint. They had only one thing in common."
And that, Mann said, was that the identities of both men were deeply tied up in their actions, in what they did in life, and that each of them had very definite limits beyond which he would not go. Yet at the same time, he said, he did not want to present the men as one-note heroes.
"It is not my intent that these are heroic moments at all," Mann said. "It is a failure to read the film accurately to say that these are romantic characters and heroic moments. Theyre not. Jeffreys character in the film is as flawed as everybody else, and thats what made him attractive."
Disney Hopes Insider Can Cut Through Pop-Movie Haze (Hollywood)
By Claudia Eller
1999, Los Angeles Times
HOLLYWOOD Making issue-oriented movies based on current events has always been risky business in Hollywood. In an age dominated by media conglomerates, it would seem even more unlikely that such risks would be taken on a movie about the conflicting interests of a corporate giant and the news organization it controls.
Yet Walt Disney Co., one of worlds biggest media corporations and owner of ABC, decided to take a gamble on Michael Manns $68-million drama, "The Insider," hoping its subject matter will be as compelling to mainstream audiences as Alan Pakulas "All the Presidents Men" was 23 years ago.
The film chronicles the real-life relationship between reluctant whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who convinces the former Brown & Williamson scientist to expose Big Tobaccos knowledge of nicotine addiction.
Just as Wigand showed the courage of his convictions by going up against a corporate giant after he was fired, so Bergman fought the corporate powers at CBS Inc. when the broadcaster refused to air Mike Wallaces explosive interview with Wigand for fear of being sued.
Based on a script by Mann and Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump"), "The Insider" opens nationwide on Nov. 5 and is already being touted in Hollywood as a likely Oscar contender.
Disney Studios chairman Joe Roth (no relation to Eric Roth), who championed the film, said early on that he alerted Disneys corporate executives to the project, sensitive to the fact that the movie "does throw some stones at another network."
"I certainly wasnt pressured to be careful in any way," said Roth, noting Disney Chairman Michael Eisners only concern was "to make sure the story was accurate." Roth readily admits that investing a lot of money in a 2*-hour, issue-packed film is risky. But he believes the films creative strengths "a beautifully shot movie from a great director, a great script and a big star" will help sell "Insider" to the over-25 crowd the least available segment of the moviegoing public. Mann, interviewed at his Blue Light Productions headquarters in West Los Angeles, said he was grateful that "Joe Roth, and by extension, Disney, had backed my play." The director said the movie was driven by "the searing human experience of these two men who couldnt be more different from each other." "These dramatics are universal," noted Mann, suggesting, "It is self-limiting for studio executives or people who write about media to assume these kind of subjects cant be of interest to a mass audience."
A native of Chicago, Mann first made his name writing for television and executive producing NBCs highly influential pop cop series "Miami Vice." He conceived of the tobacco movie in 1995 not long after meeting Bergman through a mutual friend. "I became one of 10 or 12 people that Lowell called in the fall of 1995 when everything with Jeffrey Wigand began falling apart," recalls Mann, referring to the period at "60 Minutes" when Bergman found himself standing alone against CBS decision to air a watered-down version of Wallaces Big Tobacco story without identifying Wigand. "He was bouncing this off of a large number of people," he added, one of whom was his old friend Susan Lyne, an executive vice president at ABC Entertainment who is married to "60 Minutes" producer George Crile. Lyne also became interested in pursuing a film on the Wigand matter. Mann said the idea took off between the time "60 Minutes" aired its Wigand-less interview in early November 1995 and three months later when the segment aired in its entirety only after Bergman leaked the story to New York papers. In May 1996, Marie Brenner wrote an article about the Wigand affair in Vanity Fair titled "The Man Who Knew Too Much," on which the movie was ultimately based. Much has been written about the fact that Eric Roth and Mann took some creative license with the story, mostly, they say, by collapsing timelines, compressing information, and in some cases embellishing or fictionalizing events and conversations to emphasize a characters psychological state of mind. "The big simple truths we did not want to deviate from," Mann said. Both he and Roth underscored the fact that their movie is a drama, not a documentary. Roth said some scenes, including one where a man at a golf course at night appears to be tailing Wigand, were invented to "get into the psychology of terror" and paranoia the former tobacco executive was experiencing.
The scene is one of several that Brown & Williamson is objecting to on the grounds that it creates the impression that it was responsible for threats against Wigand. Disney has received several letters from Brown & Williamsons lawyers asking that the tobacco companys name be removed from the film as well as those scenes it finds objectionable. A Disney official would only say, "Its not our policy to discuss private correspondence."
Brown & Williamson isnt the only one up in arms over its portrayal. The most vocal has been Wallace, whos been widely quoted as calling the film a betrayal, based on having read the script.
Roth says hes certain that if he had written "Insider" as a spec script, "it never would have gotten made." Both he and Mann credit Disneys Joe Roth for being what the writer called "the real hero in this because he backed a film that is not your most obvious vehicle."
Bergman, who left CBS over the Wigand incident and lives in Berkeley, Calif., working for PBS "Frontline" series and writing for the New York Times, remarked, "Its ironic that it took Hollywood to do the story about censorship and self-censorship in network news. And, they didnt fold their cards."
The Explosive Film That Ticked Off '60 Minutes'
By Tom Shales (October 15, 1999)
Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Co.
"The Insider" is dynamite. It hasn't even gone off yet and already debris is falling and people are claiming to have been hurt. The fact-based film, which will have its gala Washington premiere Nov. 4 at the Uptown Theatre, has sparked a furious war of words between movie people in Hollywood and broadcast journalists in New York.
Before it's over, this skirmish between celebrities may widen into a war between giant corporate mega-powers--Disney, which made the film, on one side and CBS Inc. on the other, with individuals caught in the crossfire. And that is partly what the movie itself is all about.
Mike Wallace, star correspondent of "60 Minutes," is depressed and saddened by the film and calls it a "betrayal," though he's yet to see it and bases his objections on reading the script. Don Hewitt, creator and executive producer of "60 Minutes," is on the proverbial warpath and, says Wallace, "the closer it comes, the more exercised he's been getting."
They both complain that Michael Mann, the film's director, "refuses" to show them the completed film. "I can't show it to them," Mann says from Hollywood. "And the reason I can't is that at every opportunity they have attacked the picture, attacked me and misrepresented past history. On the day the president of CBS News called to ask me for a screening, the publicist for '60 Minutes' was taking shots at me in the press. It makes no sense to show them the film."
Wallace and Hewitt are worried about the movie because it exhumes a dark, sorry period in the otherwise virtuous life of "60 Minutes." In 1995, the program was to broadcast an interview with Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist and former vice president at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. In the interview, Wigand said that company CEO Thomas E. Sandefur Jr. lied to Congress when he claimed ignorance about the addictive nature of nicotine.
Wigand had been a reluctant whistle-blower, courted and prodded by "60 Minutes" segment producer Lowell Bergman into going public despite considerable risk to Wigand's career and personal life. But at the last minute, CBS News executives, including Hewitt, backed down from airing the interview when a CBS Inc. attorney told them Brown & Williamson could sue the network for billions if it aired.
Humiliated, Wallace went on the air with a weak Big Tobacco story in which Wigand was not identified, his face was obscured and his remarks were heavily censored. Wallace told viewers that CBS Corporate had made the decision. Bergman, infuriated by what seemed shameful cowardice, leaked the story to New York newspapers and finally, nearly three months later, "60 Minutes" viewers saw the Wigand interview that had been withheld. Bergman subsequently left CBS out of disillusionment with the system.
Wallace is upset because he fears the film makes it look as if he didn't fight hard enough to get the original story on the air. Earlier this year, he fired off a series of letters to Mann objecting to portions of an early draft of the script by Eric Roth, whose previous screenplays include "Forrest Gump." Mann's credits include "The Last of the Mohicans," "Heat" and the NBC series "Miami Vice."
One of the ironies of the story is this: In the film, Wallace is portrayed (by dashing actor Christopher Plummer) as being worried to the point of obsession about how the scandal will affect his "legacy" as a journalist and an American icon. Now the real Wallace is similarly obsessed with how the film will affect his legacy and the public's perception of him as courageous and truthful.
When asked about the film, Hewitt tries to laugh it off. "People tell me it's very boring and too long," he says. The film does run a little more than 2 1/2 hours, and film critics will be screening it for the first time this weekend. But this reporter can testify, on the basis of an advance screening in September, that by no means is the movie "very boring." It is riveting and shocking and deeply moving. Pat Kingsley, Mann's publicist, isn't just being a publicist when she predicts it could be one of the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture.
Russell Crowe, who gained 30 pounds to play the role of Wigand, seems a cinch to get a Best Actor nomination. Bergman is played by Al Pacino, another potential nominee. The film really is about Wigand and Bergman more than it's about Wallace or Hewitt. It's the story of one man confronting awesome corporate forces and seeing his life all but destroyed for daring to come forward and tell the truth.
Bergman's character, who is seen encouraging Wigand to go public, reassuring him and earning his trust, is enraged when the report doesn't air. As his ordeal goes on, Wigand's career collapses, his wife leaves him and he literally fears for his life. A message on his computer flashes: "WE WILL KILL YOU."
Hewitt is making quite a tremendous fuss about the film, considering that he doesn't think it will do well at the box office. "The public doesn't know what 'tortious interference' is," he scoffs. "They think it's something from a football game." Actually, "tortious interference" was the basis for the specious legal argument made by CBS lawyers who warned against airing the piece. Wigand had signed an agreement with Brown & Williamson not to discuss company business if he left the firm. But a state attorney general in the South found ways around that gag order by getting some of Wigand's testimony into court records.
"This was a corporate blunder," Hewitt says of the decision not to air the report as scheduled. "Nobody here at '60 Minutes' was in agreement with the corporation. Short of a bunch of guerrillas with guns taking over the CBS transmitters, there was no way for us to put it on the air the first time. CBS owns the means of getting that story to the public."
Not only that, but CBS Inc. was in play at the time, hoping to be sold to Westinghouse, and the corporate lawyers, some of whom stood to gain financially from the sale, didn't want anything to endanger the deal. Then there was a precedent to wrestle with: In June of 1995, ABC settled a $10 billion libel suit filed by the Philip Morris Cos. rather than go to trial in a Richmond courtroom and very possibly lose the case. ABC apologized for a report about Big Tobacco, and that made ABC News insiders furious.
If Brown & Williamson had sued CBS, the case would have been tried in the tobacco-growing state of Kentucky, and merely filing for an appeal if the jury found for Brown & Williamson could have cost CBS $1 billion.
The Hewitt-Wallace attack on the film gets personal. And ugly. They both accuse Bergman of negotiating with Mann to do a movie about the case while it was still going on. They say Bergman was frequently on the phone with Mann and took copious notes during all the meetings inside CBS. From North Carolina, where he is working on a documentary for the PBS "Frontline" series, Bergman says the Wallace-Hewitt version is a lie.
"I had met Michael, and he was one of many people I spoke to for guidance during the crisis," Bergman says. "But the movie idea didn't happen until January of 1996." Bergman says he wanted out of CBS and called another friend, Disney executive Susan Lyne (coincidentally or not the wife of another "60 Minutes" producer, George Crile), about getting a job as a consultant. Bergman thought there were many stories he'd worked on at "60 Minutes" that might be the basis for movies. But "Susan and George both said to me, 'The real movie here is what's going on at "60 Minutes," ' " Bergman says.
"Am I on speaking terms with Lowell Bergman? Not anymore," says Wallace. "In February, he came to my apartment asking for my help in getting a job on '60 Minutes II.' " Wallace says he was flabbergasted that Bergman would request such a favor with the movie in pre-production. "Lowell went to Mike's apartment to see about getting a job here," Hewitt also says. "Here he is [urinating] all over CBS in a movie and trying very hard to get back here."
"That is nonsense," says Mann in Bergman's defense.
Bergman, who worked at CBS News from 1983 through '96, insists it's not true, or even close. "These allegations are fantasies they're having," Bergman says. "I feel sad for them that they have to make things up." In addition to working as an independent documentary producer, Bergman writes for the New York Times and teaches at the University of California at Berkeley.
Wallace's many letters had to do with what he considered factual inaccuracies in the film. Some lines were changed, Mann says, insisting that he based his changes on consultations with Bergman. "I made no changes because Mike requested them," Mann says flatly. Some of these changes have already been reported. In the first scene of the original script, Bergman (Pacino) is in Iran setting up a difficult interview with some nutty Iranian official. Wallace, scheduled to fly in and do the interview, calls Bergman from New York and asks whether the hotel is luxurious and whether its bathrooms have Jacuzzis. All the feuding parties agree on one thing: This never happened. The line about Jacuzzis is not in the finished film. "Lowell said Mike would never ask that kind of thing," Mann says. "Mike is not that concerned about creature comforts." One line that remains in the movie will probably get a big laugh even from the people who might be offended by it--employees of National Public Radio. Late in the film, worried about his legacy and even about getting fired if he fights too hard to air the Wigand interview, Wallace (Plummer) bellows, "I don't plan to spend the end of my days wandering in the wilderness of National Public Radio!" That's actually a change. Mann says the original line was "I'm not going to spend the end of my days wandering in the wilderness like Walter Cronkite!"
In dredging up ammunition to use against the film, it was inevitable that someone at CBS point out that "Insider" is being released by Disney, which in turn owns ABC, home of ABC News and "20/20," a respected show but hardly in a league with "60 Minutes." Hewitt is not too proud to seize on this line of attack. "ABC News is in a life-and-death struggle with '60 Minutes,' " Hewitt says. "Who owns ABC News? Disney. Who made the movie? Disney. Who keeps ABC News from doing a story about pedophilia at Disney theme parks? Disney." Asked whether Disney would ever release a movie as critical of "20/20" as "Insider" is of "60 Minutes," Hewitt says, "There is no movie about '20/20.' But if there were, it certainly wouldn't be made by Disney." Apprised of Hewitt's tirade, ABC corporate vice president Patricia J. Matson said, "This is such a ridiculous notion that I don't think even Don Hewitt believes it."
Mann says there actually once was a line of dialogue in the script about the way ABC News capitulated to Philip Morris: "ABC caved, paid and retracted," someone said. Mann said an ABC executive actually wanted the line left in, partly perhaps to show that Disney movies and ABC News do not interact at all. Mann cut it for continuity reasons, he says, but he promises to put it back in a special TV version of the film he is now editing. The TV version will be longer than the theatrical film because Mann wants it to be a two-night miniseries. Thus it'll run three hours and take up four hours of air time (the rest filled, of course, by commercials).
Might ABC show the film? It depends who offers the most money for the TV rights, Mann says. It doesn't seem likely CBS will be in there bidding.
Although Hewitt's under the impression that his real name is not used in the film, it is. So are many other real names. But one man who escapes that fate is Eric Ober, who was then president of CBS News and who, according to several sources at CBS, was one of the first to give in to the lawyers' recommendations and even wanted to kill the piece altogether. But there's no Eric Ober in the film. He's called Eric Kuster because, Mann explains, a line of dialogue from another person is put in the character's mouth and thus the character becomes a composite. Maybe it's another way not to get sued.
At one memorable point in "The Insider," a CBS lawyer tells the newspeople that if Wigand's charges against Brown & Williamson were untrue, the network would have no problem, or legal liability, in airing them--but the fact that they apparently were true made it impossible. At which point, Pacino as Bergman asks, "Is this 'Alice in Wonderland?" In some aspects, the story of CBS News vs. Michael Mann and "The Insider" has its Alicey aspects too. After all the fur has flown, the last charge leveled and denied, and the film finally opens and is seen by an audience, even Wallace and Hewitt may soften in their virulent opposition.
After all, the big sticking point to Wallace is not going to be a major topic of discussion for the general audience: At what point did Wallace break with Hewitt and CBS executives and decide the bowdlerized piece should not have aired and that the original interview should? Wallace says it was a matter of days ("48 to 72 hours") but Bergman says it was a matter of months. What Wallace will see as the film's most damning moment comes when Bergman appeals to him to fight the good fight and instead, Wallace says tersely, "I'm with Don on this." In his New York office, Wallace riffles through letters and other documents as he strives to prove his point about the timing of events and what he said when. Finally he takes a deep breath and sums up his feelings: "I haven't been granted a chance to view 'The Insider,' " Wallace says, slowly and softly. "But if what I hear from others who have seen it is accurate, it simply does not reflect the truth of what happened here at '60 Minutes.' Everyone at CBS Incorporated and CBS News knew that I insisted--after a 48-hour mistake--on broadcasting the original piece. And to suggest that I lost my moral compass only to find it again under the tutelage of Lowell Bergman is asinine. "He knows it, Mr. Mann knows it. But the deception helps the drama. I don't like being used in the fashion with which they are using me." The good news for Mike Wallace may turn out to be that his legacy is far more secure than he thinks it is. He is a giant figure in the history of network news. Mann says what his movie is about is that beneath the clash of corporations and the legal battling, human beings were involved, with their fates and fortunes at stake. "All humans are flawed," he says, and he made a concerted effort not to mythologize Wigand, showing him to have imperfections and to have made foolish decisions.
That humans are prone to error shouldn't be a very controversial stance to take. Maybe what Hewitt and Wallace are doing is further proof, because with all their vociferous objecting, they could help turn a movie that's commercially iffy into a smash hit. Whether or not it plays in Peoria, "The Insider" is likely to be the most talked-about movie in media circles since "All the President's Men." (thanks to Nadine, Thalya and Lulu)
Outside the animation realm, Disney has consistently come up short at academy time. In recent years, the studio has pulled out all the stops for a series of weighty dramas, most notably "Evita," "A Civil Action," "Nixon" and "Kundun," only to see them fall short with critics and audiences alike.
This year's Oscar hopeful is a provocative Michael Mann-directed drama about the complicated relationship between a conscience-ridden tobacco firm whistle-blower, played by Russell Crowe, and an ambitious "60 Minutes" producer, played by Al Pacino. Early screenings have created some Oscar fizz for Pacino and Crowe, although the studio is still debating which actor to push for best actor versus the best supporting category.
It's a sure bet the film's inside peek at "60 Minutes" will produce a wealth of media buzz. An equally sure bet: Don't expect any coverage from "60 Minutes" (Disney already has a piece in the works with "20/20," the Disney-owned ABC-TV newsmagazine.) Exhibitors who saw "The Insider" gave it a chorus of thumbs up, but it's still unclear how well the film will play outside the New York, L.A. and Washington media beltways. (Thanks to Annie M.)
ON TOBACCO AND 60 MINUTES
By BERNARD WEINRAUB (July 30, 1999)
c.1999 N.Y. Times
HOLLYWOOD Michael Mann, director of "Last of the Mohicans" and "Heat," is nervous. So is Joe Roth, chairman of Walt Disney studios. And who can blame them?
The two men are awaiting reaction to Manns newest and most anticipated film, "The Insider," which deals with, among other issues, the decision by CBS News in 1995 not to broadcast an interview on "60 Minutes" with a tobacco company whistleblower.
"The volume has been turned up in the media," said Mann, who created the television series "Miami Vice." "Were not so much concerned about CBS or Mike Wallace or Don Hewitt or those folks," Mann said of the "60 Minutes" reporter and the executive producer, who are portrayed in the movie in a less-than-flattering way. "The big concern was and is tobacco. Theyre highly litigious. They compelled CBS, a paragon of journalistic integrity, to yank a show."
The two-and-a-half-hour film, to be released by Disney on Nov. 9, stars Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman, a former "60 Minutes" producer, and Russell Crowe ("L.A. Confidential") as Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist who decided to reveal information that his former employer, the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., had lied to Congress about tobaccos addictive effects. The film deals with the complex and volatile relationship between Wigand, a complicated, almost withdrawn figure, and the aggressive television producer.
"Theyre totally different," Mann said. "In a social context, they wouldnt be attracted to one another as friends or even get along. And Jeffrey Wigand is not Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington. Hes precisely as imperfect as all of us."
CBS initially decided against broadcasting its interview with Wigand with the acquiescence of Hewitt and Wallace. Bergman, who was Wallaces longtime producer, strenuously argued with his bosses. CBS later broadcast the interview. But Bergman quit. Bergman now teaches at the University of California at Berkeley and does free-lance reporting, including some assignments on contract with The New York Times. Wigand lives in Charleston, S.C., and runs a project intended to keep youngsters from smoking cigarettes.
Mann said he had known Bergman for years and had considered making a film based on another "60 Minutes" episode produced by him. "Every week or so Id get a call from him," Mann said. "I was inside those events when CBS closed down the story and Wigand was under intense personal pressure. At one point I said, What youre living through, thats a drama."
An article about Wigand in Vanity Fair, by Marie Brenner, which was the basis for the movie, accelerated the project. Roth, Disneys chairman, said the script by Eric Roth, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay, "Forrest Gump," immediately sold him on the film.
"It was a good drama, a good thriller, a good story of how corporations face responsibilities or not," he said. Roth added that he was convinced that the various portrayals of real people in the film were accurate and that the drama was not merely a criticism of the CBS journalists. "I was concerned that the people at 60 Minutes would see the movie as something other than what it intends to be, a drama told on different levels in which they went along with corporate decisions that they probably regret in retrospect, and Mike Wallace has gone on record as saying that," Roth said. Roth said he was a bit reluctant to talk about Brown & Williamsons response to Disneys decision to make the film. "Weve certainly heard from them along the way," he said. "Our lawyers have been in this the whole time. I have a great deal of confidence in Michael Manns meticulous research." Both Mann, who is credited as a co-screenwriter on the film, and Roth made clear that they hoped any potential uproar about the way CBS News or Brown & Williamson is presented in the movie would not overshadow the movie itself.
"I dont want to sell the controversy or the potential problems with 60
Minutes or Brown & Williamson," Roth said. "Its a great American story about how difficult it is, even if youre right, to go against hugely rich and powerful companies in communications and manufacturing. And the irony is not lost on me that I work for one of those, too."
(Thanks to Linda and Lulu)
Is Mike Wallace Ready for his Close-Up?
By FRANK RICH
c.1999 N.Y. Times News (July 17, 1999)
Just when the American media had checked out of Monicagate rehab, secure in the knowledge that only shut-ins have time for the press-bashing panels on C-Span or the ecclesiastical prose of Brill's Content, along comes Hollywood to ruin everything. In November the country will be bombarded with the most high-profile screen account of big-time, brand-name journalism since "All the President's Men," and while it may well prove a hit, it's not going to set off another stampede to the nation's journalism schools.
The movie, titled "The Insider," is an up-to-date antidote to its classic predecessor. In place of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as crusading reporters who take on a President to the cheers of their editors at The Washington Post, we have Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman, Mike Wallace's longtime producer at "60 Minutes," who takes on Big Tobacco only to find his scoop squelched by his network bosses. The movie doesn't celebrate a high point representative of American journalism in the 70's but dissects a low point that may be all too representative of the 90's. Even when the hero's big story is belatedly aired, he feels more disillusioned than vindicated and leaves "60 Minutes" for good -- eventually to seek freedom as a freelancer, with assignments from PBS's "Frontline" and The Times.
Well before its release, "The Insider" has kicked up its own news in a string of publications, including this one, because of Mr. Wallace's objections to its portrayal of him in an early draft of the script that he read. Mr. Wallace has not yet been shown the film. I have seen it, and talked to the warring and semi-warring parties, including him, Mr. Bergman, Don Hewitt (the "60 Minutes" executive producer), Michael Mann (the film's director and co-author) and Marie Brenner (whose Vanity Fair story spawned the screenplay).
They can and perhaps will debate until next year's Oscars about the dramatic license "The Insider" takes with what happened at "60 Minutes" four years ago, but it won't matter. Its Hollywoodisms notwithstanding, this movie does show what can happen to journalism -- especially on TV, the prime source of news for two-thirds of Americans -- in an era when a network news division is just another entertainment profit center, like theme parks and logo-laden tchotchkes, in a megacorporation.
No one, including Mr. Wallace and Mr. Hewitt, can dispute the big picture presented by "The Insider." In 1995 CBS lawyers and executives did in fact overrule its journalists and spike an interview with Jeffrey Wigand, a former Brown & Williamson tobacco executive turned courageous whistle-blower. The piece was killed not because it was false or libelous but because it might have brought a disruptive lawsuit at the time the network was being sold by Laurence Tisch to Westinghouse. If The Washington Post had cowered before Attorney General John Mitchell the way CBS did before Big Tobacco, the Watergate cover-up might have remained in place and Diane Sawyer might have spent decades fielding calls from Bebe Rebozo instead of taking her own leap into TV news.
While "The Insider" fudges chronology and makes Mr. Pacino's Bergman into a superman that even the real-life prototype finds a bit "too neat," it is no more fictionalized than was "All the President's Men," or, for that matter, "Schindler's List." Mr. Hewitt is presented as caving in to the film's barely veiled versions of CBS's then general counsel, Ellen Kaden, and news division president, Eric Ober (now president of the Food Network) -- and he's publicly acknowledged on camera that he did so, in a 1998 PBS "American Masters" documentary. "I was somewhat of a bowl of Jell-O," he said of what was "not [his] proudest moment." As for Mr. Wallace, he is portrayed as reluctantly toeing the corporate line at first, then joining Bergman's crusade to get the story out. It's a plausible interpretation of his public posture at the time, and not remotely as damning on screen as he fears. He's played by Christopher Plummer, who can make even the character's occasional prima-donna moments elegant. ("The fact that Mike has a temper is not a state secret," says the real-life Mr. Bergman.)
The real-life Mr. Wallace is celebrating his 60th anniversary in broadcasting this month, and doesn't want to be "memorialized" in a Hollywood "morality play" about this one story. He won't be. The movie won't alter his reputation as the outstanding correspondent on TV's first and still best news-magazine show. But the shock of the Wigand incident -- an anomaly for "60 Minutes" but not for network news -- was real, and from his long historical perspective he sees its significance as clearly as anyone.
As Mr. Wallace says, the killing of the interview "would have been unthinkable under Dick Salant," the CBS News president of the 60's and 70's. "Bill Paley [then the CBS chairman] was not happy sometimes with us or with the Watergate stuff Cronkite was doing, but Salant insulated us. When I got the documents on the Pinto -- and Ford was our biggest sponsor on '60 Minutes' -- there wasn't a whimper from Salant, not a whimper."
That seems like a distant era, and, as Mr. Hewitt is quick to point out, even a film like "The Insider" is not free of the conflicts that now emerge when news and entertainment meet in unholy synergy. The movie's producer, Disney, owns ABC News, which itself capitulated to Big Tobacco in 1995 by apologizing to Philip Morris for a news-magazine piece many feel the network could have successfully defended in court. That incident, though preceding the Wigand interview, is happily forgotten in "The Insider." Mr. Hewitt is also not shy about saying that he considered doing a "60 Minutes" expos about how ABC News killed a "20/20" investigation into pedophilia at Disney theme parks last year.
But it isn't just corporate conflicts and self-censorship that account for what's happening to news right now. The more pervasive crisis is the usurpation of news principles by the esthetics of show biz. As Mr. Hewitt concedes, the success of "60 Minutes" has cut both ways. By demonstrating that a news broadcast could be hugely profitable -- instead of just red-ink public service, subsidized by sitcom hits -- his program spawned the countless imitators that now fill up prime time. By proving news could borrow from the arsenal of show-biz techniques -- including a correspondent star system and slam-bang dramatic storytelling -- "60 Minutes" paved the way for the abuse of those tools by its ubiquitous progeny.
At their worst, TV news magazines use the same fictionalizing sweeteners as movies like "The Insider" -- injecting music and melodrama, smoothing out moral nuances -- but, unlike Hollywood's entertainments, they present themselves as documentaries while doing so. Sometimes (and not just in the case of Peter Arnett's "Tailwind" fiasco) the "correspondents" on TV news magazines are merely telegenic fronts who have little involvement with the reporting of their stories -- which is to say, they're star actors playing a role. Though Mr. Wallace is an active collaborator in his pieces, "The Insider" accentuates the large off-camera contributions of producers by casting its biggest name, Mr. Pacino, as Mr. Bergman.
As with "All the President's Men," history gives "The Insider" a happy ending of sorts. Jeffrey Wigand, played by Russell Crowe, does finally expose Big Tobacco much as Deep Throat did Richard Nixon. But the ending doesn't feel happy, and the movie doesn't seem like settled history. While CBS and "60 Minutes" have rebounded since this breach, the reporting of news increasingly seems beside the point on television. There's no profit to be had in independent high-powered investigations of, say, Fortune 500 sponsors, and so there isn't much. Soft features and softball interviews, with questions negotiated by celebrity subjects in advance, are proliferating.
News divisions are now often so impotent within their own corporations that, as was reported last week, the president of ABC News got nowhere when he tried to prevent ABC Radio from hiring Matt Drudge.
There are many more behind-the-scenes stories waiting to be told about TV news. If Hollywood can make a movie about the grandfatherly gang of "60 Minutes" sexy to a mass audience, maybe a backstage examination of Stone and Jane at "Dateline NBC" can be marketed along the lines of "Eyes Wide Shut."
(Thanks to Lulu)
Film Drama Shines A Harsh Light on "60 Minutes"
By PETER APPLEBOME
c.1999 N.Y. Times News (July 13, 1999)
NEW YORK Four years after one of the low points in the history of CBS News, its decision not to broadcast an exclusive "60 Minutes" interview with a tobacco industry whistle-blower, a furious battle of egos and spin is unfolding over a film drama about the episode being prepared for release this fall.
At issue, to some extent, are the characterizations of media titans like Mike Wallace and CBS News performance under fire. Wallace angrily says that the film distorts his role in the decision not to run the interview. The films director, Michael Mann, says it is an accurate look at Wallaces actions and, more important, the plight of a man, Jeffrey Wigand, caught between a tobacco giant determined to smear him and a media giant unwilling to tell his story.
Also in play are the dynamics of television news, in which the reporting attributed to stars like Wallace has often been done by others, and the famously thin skins of people in the news media, who often seem the least able to accept the scrutiny they routinely give to others.
But the overriding issue, perhaps, is an increasingly familiar one: the treatment of real events and real people in dramatized films.
In this case, Wigands story is being brought to the screen by Mann, a master of atmospherics best known for creating the television series "Miami Vice" and directing the film "The Last of the Mohicans," and the screenwriter Eric Roth, who won an Oscar for "Forrest Gump."
Mann accumulated reams of documentation, from legal depositions to news reports to "60 Minutes" transcripts, for the film, which centers on Wigands decision to go public with damning information about his former employer, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., and CBSs initial decision not to broadcast the report. The director says the film accurately conveys the larger truths of the story.
"Theres very little in this film thats not substantiated," he said.
To tell that story, however, the film makes use of numerous dramatic devices that differ markedly from the facts of the case, including putting words in the mouth of Wallace that he never said and giving his producer, Lowell Bergman, credit for things he did not do.
"In the realm of drama, you change everything," Mann said. "You change everything to have it mean exactly the same thing it meant before. You do all the typical things. You collapse time, you combine characters, you overlay dramatic events. Nobody ever said in All The Presidents Men, Follow the money. The only guy who said that is Bill Goldman, the screenwriter."
The new film, "The Insider," revolves around the relationship between Wigand and Bergman, who, as Wallaces longtime producer, had done much of the reporting for many of Wallaces most important pieces. The film tells of the decision by Wigand, vice president for research and development at Brown & Williamson until 1993, to go public with revelations about his years with the company, including evidence that its chief executive, Thomas E. Sandefur Jr., who died in 1966, had lied to Congress about what the company knew about tobaccos addictive properties.
Bergman obtained an exclusive interview for Wallace with Wigand, and Bergman and Wallace were preparing a "60 Minutes" segment around it when CBS lawyers said the interview would have to be shelved. The lawyers said that because Wigand had signed an agreement with Brown & Williamson not to reveal company information, broadcasting the report would open CBS up to a claim of "tortious interference" that could lead to a multibillion-dollar judgment.
At the time no news organization had successfully been sued over such a claim, and most First Amendment lawyers found it a baffling basis on which to kill a report. The decision came at a time when ABC had agreed to a $16 million settlement with Philip Morris over an investigative report and when CBS was in the middle of negotiations that led to its sale to Westinghouse, leading to widespread speculation that the legal decision reflected a desire to ward off any conceivable trouble while the sale was pending.
Bergman, who has since left CBS, said that the film was not primarily about "60 Minutes" or Wallace. This view was echoed by Mann and Marie Brenner, who wrote the article in Vanity Fair on which the movie was based. They said the film was essentially about Wigand and the plight of an individual trying to take on huge corporate interests.
"Mike should understand that whats important here are the issues and not whether his image is exactly what he wants it to be," said Bergman, who said he sold the story to Mann but did not write the screenplay or determine the nuances of how his character or Wallaces were portrayed. "I know Mike is frustrated. But Mike is going to have to argue with the public record, and I cant help him with that."
Bergman now teaches at the University of California at Berkeley and does free-lance reporting, including some assignments on contract with The New York Times.
Even before the film was completed, Wallace began mounting an aggressive public effort to dispel any notion that he ever acquiesced to managements decision to kill the interview. In the finished film, as in the early drafts, he is portrayed as reluctantly going along with the decision of CBS lawyers and then changing course and fighting to have it shown. Don Hewitt, executive producer of "60 Minutes," is portrayed as acquiescing throughout.
Hewitt said the network did the right thing in the end by eventually broadcasting its information, albeit after much of that information had already come out. And he said he saw no reason to lose sleep over the film.
"Like I told Mike, Its a movie, OK? " Hewitt said. "I went to see Gone with the Wind, but did I really believe there was a guy named Rhett Butler who said, Frankly, my dear, I dont give a damn? No. Movies need heroes and villains, and real life doesnt usually have heroes and villains. Real life has a lot of shades of gray, and movies have black and white even when theyre in color."
But Wallace has been incensed about the film since he saw an early script, which began with a scene in which Bergman, played by Al Pacino, lines up an interview with the Lebanese Shiite Muslim leader Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah for Wallace, played by Christopher Plummer. In the scene, the blindfolded Bergman, having set up the interview at great peril, picks up his cell phone and assures Wallace that he can get him a hotel with a Jacuzzi and room service.
Wallace whipped off a series of letters to Mann protesting the characterization and other issues in the script. Mann agreed to change some elements, including the Jacuzzi line, which he said Bergman also objected to.
But Wallace, determined that the screenplay show him and Bergman to be, as he wrote in one letter, "two peas in a pod, shoulder to shoulder throughout the entire exercise," remained unsatisfied. His letters ranged from thanking Mann for addressing his concerns to railing about the unfairness of being depicted as a "soulless and cowardly laggard who lost his moral compass until Lowell set me back on the straight path."
In a telephone interview, Wallace said: "If this is entertainment, why does he use my name and have words come out of my mouth that I never would have said? There was never any doubt in anyones mind at CBS on where I stood on this. And to be portrayed as having lost my moral compass, caved in. To whom? For what? This is important to me, or I wouldnt go on like this."
Wallace is depicted in the movie as a volatile and complicated character, and the precise nature of his behavior could probably be viewed in different ways.
To Hewitt and many associates inside and outside CBS, Wallace never acquiesced in the decision, and pushed to broadcast the report, which eventually got on the air. In the first segment, which ran Nov. 12, 1995, he concludes by speaking of the pride that people at "60 Minutes" took in their work and how dismayed they were that "the management at CBS had seen fit to give in to perceived threats of legal action against us by a tobacco industry giant."
But Bergman and Ms. Brenner said Wallace could and should have used his enormous clout earlier to fight for the report. Bergman and Mann said that his comments in publications like The New York Times, The New York Post and Newsday defending CBSs decision once it became public indicate that on this one, Wallaces knees temporarily buckled, however much he wanted to think otherwise.
In a television interview with Charlie Rose on Nov. 13, 1995, Wallace seemed to reflect the films view that for a time he reluctantly went along with the decision and then changed course. It soon became apparent "we were simply dead wrong, that we were caving in," he told Rose. "And I quickly backed off that, if you will."
Ms. Brenner said the film accurately reflected not so much a lapse on Wallaces part but a profoundly disordered time at "60 Minutes."
"It was like a Joseph Conrad novel, men under tremendous pressure, trying to deal with the larger chill put upon them by big tobacco," she said.
As Mann said of Wallace and, to a lesser extent, Hewitt: "Only in their imagination are they pilloried as villains. The film shows them as passengers in a train wreck not of their making, and everyone reacts in a different way and often without elegance. But thats what happens in life."
Wallaces anger is particularly directed at Bergman and reflects one of the enduring tensions in broadcast news: On-air personalities get nearly all the credit for reporting that is often done largely by anonymous producers. In that sense, both Hewitt and Wallace see the film as Bergmans revenge, a case of the underlings grabbing his share of glory. That perception is reinforced by the long association between Bergman and Mann, whose film gives Bergman an unqualifiedly heroic aura.
Wallace said the movie deals that Bergman had secured in this case and in other instances undercut his credibility as a selfless journalistic hero.
"Lowell always had an inclination to blow his part up a little more than it actually was," Hewitt said.
At 81 Wallace has a reputation as a major figure in broadcast journalism that will hardly depend on how he is dramatized by Mann. Still, the squabbling reflects two acknowledged truths about life in the media.
The first is that the negative images tend to last the longest, whether they are disseminated in movie dramas or hard-hitting news-magazine programs. "Fame has a 15-minute half-life," the Wallace character muses in the movie, adding, "Infamy lasts a little longer."
The second is that few people are more sensitive to how they are depicted than those who are usually on the other side of the camera.
"We dont have thin skins," said Bergman. "We have no skin."
(Thanks to Linda)