Michael Mann's latest film is sparking almost as much controversy as the sensational story that inspired it
Warning: ‘The Insider‘ may be hazardous to the mental health of CBS employees, cigarette-company executives, journalists, and the CEOs of several major corporations. But for a select few, this boardroom thriller may have long-term benefits.
You’ve probably never heard of The Insider‘s heroes, but the names of its villains will ring a bell: 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt, the CBS corporation, Congress, and the entire multibillion-dollar tobacco industry. Even Mike Wallace takes a beating. They’re not the usual suspects for a two-hour-and-35-minute Goliath versus Goliath saga that brazenly pits one media organization against another and a studio against one of the most lawsuit-happy industries in America. For a film aimed at both a mass audience and Academy voters, Michael Mann’s long-awaited drama already has a mighty long list of detractors.
Four years ago, Jeffrey Wigand, the former chief of research and development for the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., met with 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman and agreed to speak out against his former boss, who Wigand said had lied to Congress, testifying that he did not believe nicotine to be addictive. But after Mike Wallace interviewed Wigand in the fall of 1995, CBS panicked over its own potential liability if Wigand’s interview was shown to violate the confidentiality agreement he’d signed with B&W. Such a suit could have additionally hindered CBS’ imminent sale to Westinghouse. In a decision that would forever alter the reputations of those involved, CBS aired a piece in which Wigand was unidentified and his face obscured. —Wallace registered his objections on the air, and by the time the publicly humiliated network showed the uncut segment three months later (and only after The Wall Street Journal ran parts of Wigand’s deposition, thus easing CBS’ lawsuit worries), Bergman’s career at 60 Minutes was effectively over, Wigand’s life was unraveling, the jewel of TV news organizations had been taken to the woodshed by just about every other news organization in America, and director Michael Mann knew he’d found his next project.
”Somewhere between November 12, when the version from which [Wigand’s identity] had been excised aired, and February 4, when the interview aired, it was like a tectonic plate had shifted,” says Mann. ”It became a bigger media event than if they had just let it air. I thought, ‘These people [at CBS and at tobacco companies] have just been recast as corporate villains, and they don’t know it.’ I thought, ‘This is a huge film.”’
While in postproduction on Heat, Mann, who was friends with Bergman, had received late-night calls from the troubled producer: Bergman felt let down by Wallace, who he thought had bowed to corporate pressure; Bergman also believed he, in turn, had betrayed Wigand. What Mann was missing was the story’s other narrator. ”Jeffrey was being sued by B&W for breaching his confidentiality agreement, and Lowell had been forbidden to talk to him,” says Mann.