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Nashville Scene Smoke and Mirrors

Gripping drama tells how Big Tobacco clouded 60 Minutes' news judgment

By Noel Murray

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  There's an old saying among hard-boiled journalists: "Reporters fill the space that the advertisers can't." The barriers between vigilant news-gathering and business-driven infotainment have been razed and reerected continuously since the days of Ben Franklin, and still the discussion continues: What does the news provide its audience--diversion or information? Is the free press just a commodity?

At a key point in Michael Mann's new film The Insider, a character boils the debate down to one simple question, aimed at a roomful of suits at CBS News: "Are you a businessman, or are you a newsman?" The voice behind the question belongs to Al Pacino, and the character behind the voice is Lowell Bergman, at the time a segment producer for the highly regarded (and rated) 60 Minutes. Bergman has just been told that an interview he went through hell to land--a Mike Wallace one-on-one with a tobacco industry whistleblower--won't be aired, because the potential liability for the network is too great.

You may remember this story, and you may think you know what it was about. In 1995, Jeffrey Wigand, a former employee of tobacco giant Brown & Williamson, was asked to consult on a 60 Minutes feature about unreported fire hazards related to smoking. After a series of vague, anonymous threats against him, an enraged Wigand decided to go public with more shocking inside information about the tobacco industry. But because Wigand was subject to a corporate "nondisclosure" agreement--basically stating that anything learned while in the employ of Brown & Williamson was information that the company owned--the facts that Wigand offered to CBS News were potentially actionable. Fearing a lawsuit (though none had been actually threatened), CBS dropped the interview, setting off weeks of editorial hand-wringing about the cowardice of corporate journalism. Finally, in early 1996, 60 Minutes aired the interview, after most of the information in it had been published worldwide.

So what's the hubbub? Cigarettes are bad for you, the tobacco companies want to pretend they aren't, and our litigious society is stifling the free flow of information. Don't we already know all this? Yes and no. What may have been forgotten in the frenzy surrounding this story is the information Wigand had to share. As head of research and development, Wigand learned not only that the tobacco industry lied to Congress about knowing the addictive properties of its product, but also that B&W in particular tried to make its cigarettes more addictive. That's a revelation tantamount to discovering that Coca-Cola put cocaine back into its formula. So volatile was Wigand's potential testimony that Brown & Williamson sent out dossiers on his messy private life to major media outlets, in an attempt to discredit him.

Meanwhile, CBS was in final negotiations to sell to Westinghouse Corporation. Clearly the corporate honchos at "Black Rock" didn't need their news organization to cause some fresh stink that might jeopardize the sale. The Insider details how, in a media landscape altered by consolidation, CBS decided to spare itself potentially fatal losses. The movie suggests CBS and Brown & Williamson have more in common than either Bergman or Wigand initially understands.

There are more chilling depths to the story than the general public may have gleaned four years ago--more, in fact, than one film can reasonably expect to cover, even in The Insider's two-and-a-half-hour running time. Because of all these issues, and the complexities surrounding them, the movie would seem to be on shaky ground with writer-director Michael Mann, whose previous films (especially Heat and The Last of the Mohicans) alternate gripping set pieces with overwrought melodrama.

But Mann uses his considerable skills at lighting and sound design to give the tightly plotted script (by the director and Eric Roth) an understated, meticulous backdrop. There are a handful of speeches in The Insider that might've sounded like position papers if delivered full-on, but Mann instructs his actors to deliver them naturally, in voices scarcely louder than a breakfast order. As a result, the film builds considerable tension, as the frustration of both Bergman and Wigand threatens to explode.

Pacino especially benefits from the general quietude. A shameless scenery chewer of late, he savors his lines here in a way he hasn't since his masterful work in Glengarry Glen Ross. The rest of the cast is stellar as well, including an unrecognizable Michael Gambon as Brown & Williamson's Machiavellian CEO and Christopher Plummer as a prickly Mike Wallace. The Insider succeeds, though, mainly on the strength of Russell Crowe's performance as Jeffrey Wigand. Crowe shows us an angry, edgy man, crushed by circumstance, who tries to do the right thing despite deep personal flaws. That he's as ornery as he is ordinary makes him a compelling hero.

If only the movie's Bergman had more of those rough edges--he's set up as another grandstanding Pacino lone-wolf crusader, which makes him a shade too overtly heroic. The man deserves his due for fighting so craftily and doggedly for his story, and Roth, Mann, and Pacino give it to him. But their focus on Bergman's vigilance ends up being a small insult to the legacy of Mike Wallace, who practically invented the kind of TV that Bergman fought to protect. Wallace is far from blameless in this whole affair, but using his momentary weakness to set off Bergman's one-dimensional righteousness is a cheap dramatic gimmick.

Thankfully, there's more to The Insider than just passing out medals. Mann and Roth balance their examination of the impact of corporate muscle on our constitutional rights with the detailed story of a handful of men in cramped high-rise boardrooms--men whose decisions affect their families and ours. The film is both pensive and exciting, and it forces us to question what we know about the way three American institutions work--capitalism, the press, and the justice system.

As The Insider opens, the news of O.J. Simpson's acquittal is hitting the stands; as it ends, the Unabomber is about to be captured. For everybody who followed those stories--namely, the entire world--Mann frames the context and the concept of his picture. The Wigand/CBS story filled the papers for a week or two between these other epochal moments, and we consumed and digested it the way we do most big news stories these days--as a fleeting fascination, little realizing the complicated anxiety of the players on, and behind, the scene. In many ways, The Insider itself is a slick piece of infotainment that turns real-life events into a matinee diversion. The difference is that here, Michael Mann fills the space that the reporters didn't.

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