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Movies

Smoke and alleged mirrors

'The Insider' goes public

Web posted on:
Friday, November 05, 1999 11:51:19 AM EST

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- A Miami judge Thursday ordered jurors in a multibillion dollar tobacco lawsuit not to see "The Insider," the film opening on Friday about Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco industry executive who became a whistle-blower.

An attorney for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., for whom Wigand worked, asked Judge Robert Kaye to bar the jury from the film, saying the fictionalized account could prejudice the panel.

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Theatrical preview for "The Insider"
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Kaye, presiding over a multiphase tobacco trial now almost 18 months old, granted the company's request. In the Miami case, jurors are determining how much cigarette makers should pay to as many as a million Florida smokers whose illnesses are blamed on smoking. The same jury found in July that major U.S. tobacco companies were liable for ailments ranging from cancer to heart and lung disease among smokers.

Defendants in the case, which some have said could yield a $300 billion to $500 billion damage award, include Brown & Williamson, the nation's third-largest tobacco company; Marlboro maker Philip Morris Cos. Inc., the world's largest cigarette firm and U.S. market leader; and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings, the second-largest U.S. tobacco company.

Flashback to the premiere

And on another Thursday, just a couple of weeks earlier, director Michael Mann is walking the line of metal stanchions at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences theater on Wilshire Boulevard.

The occasion is nothing new for Mann. He's a filmmaker, a Hollywood insider plugging away at the late-October premiere of his film "The Insider." It's a docudrama and thriller starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

But this time the stanchions separate Mann from media representatives set to grill him about another line he's walked of late -- the hard-to-define line between truth and dramatization, fact and fiction. Mann has heard his share of criticism even before his film opens.

"The Insider" is based on a major article about Wigand, a former chief of research and development at Brown & Williamson in Louisville, Kentucky. Mann and co-writer Eric Roth have crafted their screenplay on the exhaustive May 1996 Vanity Fair article, "The Man Who Knew Too Much," by Marie Brenner.

Brenner's story, and this film, are seated in the facts of Wigand's (Crowe) dismissal by Brown & Williamson. In her article, Brenner wrote of Wigand saying he recalled issuing a 1992 memo for the tobacco company's files -- a memo about his concerns regarding tobacco additives, including one called coumarin. In March 1993, Wigand was fired.

Pacino Al Pacino plays "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman

Wigand was subsequently contacted by "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman, played in Mann's film by Pacino. Bergman persuaded the fired executive to tell his story to CBS. Mann's film uses Brenner's article as a map to the events that follow on the screen.

As documented by Brenner, the Wigand story would come to be one of the most divisive stories essayed by "60 Minutes," at times pitting correspondents, producers, network officials and outside observers against each other.

Some filmgoers will say "The Insider" shows both CBS News and Brown & Williamson in an unfavorable light. The juxtaposition of corporations -- media power and tobacco giant -- gives the title a dual meaning. Either of the main characters, tobacco whistle-blower Wigand or "60 Minutes" producer Bergman -- could be considered "the insider" in question, according to Pacino.

"Yeah, that's true," he says. "I hope it helps the film to have those concurrent stories going on. We go back and forth, so it presents new ideas into the movie with the tobacco thing and '60 Minutes' paralleling each other. So I think there's a lot of stuff to stimulate you when you're watching it."

'60 Minutes': The long hour

In the film's "60 Minutes" plot thread, CBS News is characterized as being less concerned with breaking a public health news story than with the threat of litigation by the tobacco company.

In one scene, "60 Minutes" executives are shown in a scene based on one described by Brenner's Vanity Fair story. Brenner wrote that CBS general counsel Ellen Kaden believed Brown & Williamson might sue CBS for what's called "tortious interference" if the Wigand interview was aired.

The legal term "tortious interference" refers to urging someone to breach a contract. Wigand had signed a confidentiality, non-disclosure agreement with Brown & Williamson. The film's scene submits that "60 Minutes" was advised by CBS that the show might be accused of such interference, of encouraging Wigand to violate his agreement.

"60 Minutes" did end up airing a version of the tobacco segment in February 1996. But what may embarrass CBS anew with this film's release is the screenplay's implication that if the network had been the target of a tobacco lawsuit at the time, the litigation might have influenced the impending sale of CBS, eventually to Westinghouse.

Director Michael Mann

Allegations of threat

More provocative, perhaps, are sequences in the picture in which Brown & Williamson comes across on screen as playing a game of corporate hardball with Wigand. Key scenes deal with alleged intimidation, implied violence -- even death threats. The most pointed of these scenes shows Crowe, as Wigand, discovering a single bullet standing upright in his mailbox.

The controversy has been mounting for Mann and his colleagues at Touchstone Pictures, the Disney Company arm releasing "The Insider" in the United States on Friday.

"Very little of it is untrue," Mann says of the screenplay's account. "But it's all dramatized."

The film's official Web site from Touchstone carries this notice prominently, at the top of its main page: "Although the film 'The Insider' is based on a true story, certain events depicted in the film have been fictionalized for dramatic effect."

"The test," Mann says, "is whether it's authentic. It's authentic," he adds for emphasis. "This is the way it is -- in the big pieces and in a lot of the little pieces."

It's that declaration of dramatization that has drawn fire from public relations departments at CBS and at B&W.

In a statement issued by CBS, the network turns Mann's words back on him. "It's important to point out," reads the CBS text, "that the producers of the movie 'The Insider' have admitted, in a disclaimer, to adding, for dramatic effect, 'fictionalized events' to its Hollywood version. So it's obvious that the film is not true to the real-life events surrounding the '60 Minutes' tobacco piece that was broadcast on February 4th, 1996."

The real Jeffrey Wigand at the premiere of "The Insider"

"It's probably not the best circumstances for all of journalism," says onetime Brown & Williamson executive Wigand. "I mean CBS definitely did capitulate" to pressure not to air the segment. "But I think they redeemed themselves."

The CBS representative most in contact with Wigand, producer Bergman, left the network after 14 years to become a special correspondent for PBS' "Frontline." He's also affiliated with the New York Times and with the graduate school of journalism at the University of California.

"My impression of it?" says Bergman. "It's a subjective impression of what went on. Just the same as '60 Minutes' and CNN's reports on various reports are subjective. You know, when people talk about filmmaking and the techniques of filmmaking, we use them all the time in network television news in order to make our stories simpler, tighter and more understandable to the general public."

B&W calls the question

In its reaction, Brown & Williamson has issued a statement that the company will "reserve comment" until "after we've seen the movie." The company has also addressed the issue on its Web site.

The B&W main page contains a crawl reading, "Previously Sealed FBI Investigation Exposes the Real Truth Behind the Movie 'The Insider.'"

Double clicking on an icon of a newspaper vending machine next to the moving copy takes readers to an October 29 press release. Its first paragraph reads: "Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation said today that a previously sealed FBI investigation uncovered by the news media has now exposed the truth behind the soon to be released film 'The Insider' and shows that the government's key witness lied to federal agents and fabricated death threats. 'The question now,' said Brown & Williamson, 'is how can Disney continue to promote a film based on fabrications and lies?'"

The Brown & Williamson release goes on to state: "As far back as April 1998, we informed Disney and Touchstone Films that Brown & Williamson did not threaten Wigand. Last summer, we sent to them copies of investigative journalism reports that quoted Wigand's wife as stating the threatening messages were 'total fiction.' And now this morning, we have sent copies of the FBI's sworn affidavit to Disney and Touchstone with the expectation that they will cease from falsely and maliciously portraying Brown & Williamson as threatening Wigand."

In the upper left-hand corner of the page, another link highlighted in blue directs readers to a copy of a document, apparently a warrant filed on February 15, 1998, by an FBI agent named Edmund V. Armento, seeking to search Wigand's house in B&W's home base of Louisville. This warrant falls, according to its date, in the time period covered by the film.

The search referred to in this warrant is represented in the film. "The Insider" goes to considerable lengths to illustrate what it characterizes as an orchestrated smear campaign waged in various media against Wigand, in an effort to discredit him.

The big tobacco trials

Wigand's importance to the CBS story on "60 Minutes" was coupled with his significance in another matter, Mississippi's lawsuit filed against the tobacco industry to recover medical costs the state said it incurred in treating patients with smoking-related illnesses. That element of the story now resonates with Thursday's ruling against letting jurors in Florida's tobacco case see the film.

Two primary figures in the Mississippi case, Attorney General Michael Moore and attorney Richard Scruggs, participated in the film's Disney-sponsored publicity weekend held in Los Angeles in October.

Mann cast Moore to play himself in the film.

Moore told the press last month that he was anxious to get Wigand's testimony because, "If we could get Jeffrey (Wigand) as a witness, and get his testimony down, then it really would shake the tobacco industry." Moore calls Wigand "a witness who could bring to life all these Brown & Williamson documents that we already had from another source. It was important to get that deposition taken."

Attorney Richard Scruggs

Moore's colleague, Scruggs, was involved in conducting that deposition and was on hand when Wigand traveled to Mississippi to testify. After viewing the film, Scruggs was asked to rate its accuracy in describing events as he knew them.

"In terms of the dramatic impact in the fidelity to the facts and events that unfolded and that we lived through," Scruggs said, "I think the movie gets an 11 on a 10-point scale."

A scene in the film related to Wigand's appearance at the Mississippi deposition involves a motorcade of law-enforcement vehicles, driving in formation, all colored lights and urgency.

It's as if every police car in that corner of the state had been assigned to protect Wigand on his way to give testimony. Was it overkill? Scruggs says Wigand's welfare was a primary consideration, but he draws his own line where Brown & Williamson is concerned.

"We were concerned about his safety," Scruggs says, "but I don't think anyone was concerned that Brown & Williamson would make a corporate decision for violence. But because of the importance of tobacco to the economy of Kentucky, we took every reasonable measure to protect Jeff from the acts of anyone who decided to try to silence him."

Wigand today, and the film

The former tobacco executive whose reputation was assailed in an effort to lessen the impact of his testimony now is reviled in one corner and praised in another.

The Kentucky educational community selected Wigand its teacher of the year (he went into teaching in Louisville after he left Brown & Williamson). More honors from charitable and educational organizations followed. Today, Wigand lives in South Carolina and runs his own nonprofit organization, Smoke-Free Kids, based in Charleston.

How does Wigand feel about his decision to go public with what he had to say about Brown & Williamson and the tobacco industry? Was it worth it?

"Yes," he says. "No regrets. ... Most days I come home at the end of the day, and I feel good. I know I make a difference, and it's a time of my life that I'm enjoying very much."

The spotlight is likely to be focused on Wigand more in the days ahead, as the film opens. Once again, the lines may be drawn by the parties involved -- but this time with a new contingent weighing in with its own impressions: a filmgoing public.

Mann says he wants his audience to walk in the shoes of his characters, to experience "that relationship with these events.

"That's drama," the director says, a former executive producer of TV's "Miami Vice" and director of films including "Heat" (1995) and "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992).

"And so, the challenging thing," says Mann, "is that you're going to have to change things in drama, of course. Either that, or you're doing a phone book. But at the same time, they have to mean the same thing. ... You can't take creative license as a license to be untruthful."


Reuters and Turner Entertainment Report Senior Correspondent Andy Culpepper contributed to this report.


RELATED STORIES:
'60 Minutes' says tobacco film twists facts
October 28, 1999
Whistle-blower's inside view of 'The Insider'
October 22, 1999
Tobacco trials' timeline
April 25, 1997

RELATED SITES, in alphabetical order:
Brown & Williamson Web site
CBS News
  •CBS' '60 Minutes'
Official 'The Insider' site
Touchstone Pictures
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