Michael Mann’s whistle­blow­ing won­der


JEF­FREY WIGAND SITS in the cor­ner of a ho­tel room, alone. 60 Min­utes is on tele­vi­sion, an in­ter­view he gave edited down to use­less in­for­ma­tion. The mu­ral on the wall be­hind him trans­forms into the gar­den where his two lit­tle girls play. Wigand’s in a bad place, lost in this dream, a haunt­ing re­minder of ev­ery­thing he’s given up, maybe for noth­ing. And Low­ell Bergman, miles away, is a soli­tary fig­ure on the dark­en­ing beach, wor­ried about Wigand, hop­ing he’ll take his call. A storm looms.

Michael Mann’s The In­sider is based on the true story of or­di­nary peo­ple un­der ex­tra­or­di­nary pres­sure: to­bacco com­pany Brown & Wil­liamson’s for­mer head of re­search and de­vel­op­ment, Jef­frey Wigand (Rus­sell Crowe), and the man who helped him blow the whis­tle over the ad­dic­tive na­ture of its cig­a­rettes, 60 Min­utes pro­ducer Low­ell Bergman (Al Pa­cino). “Very lit­tle of it is un­true,” Michael Mann said. “But it’s all drama­tised.”

Bill Alden, then the DEA’S chief of pub­lic af­fairs, in­tro­duced Mann to Bergman, call­ing him one of three jour­nal­ists he could trust. Bergman con­fided in Mann: a man named Jef­frey Wigand wanted to dis­cuss Big To­bacco’s knowl­edge of the ad­dic­tive, dan­ger­ous na­ture of nico­tine, but he’d signed a con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ment with Brown & Wil­liamson. CBS cor­po­rate didn’t want to air his in­ter­view with jour­nal­ist Mike Wal­lace, fear­ing lit­i­ga­tion. The episode was doc­u­mented in a Van­ity Fair ar­ti­cle called ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’, by Marie Bren­ner.

Wigand piqued Mann’s in­ter­est. He was cap­ti­vated by his re­la­tion­ship with Bergman; com­plete op­po­sites who didn’t par­tic­u­larly like each other, their only com­mon­al­ity — their prin­ci­ples — brought into sharp re­lief by cir­cum­stances. “I’m run­nin’ out of he­roes. Guys like you are in short sup­ply,” Bergman had told Wigand.

Mann bought the rights to Bren­ner’s ar­ti­cle about Wigand, and wrote the script with Eric Roth. Pa­cino was the first and only choice for Bergman, while Crowe, , then an un­usual choice to play a mid­dleaged Amer­i­can, im­pressed Mann with his read­ing. The film is a David and Go­liath story about lone­some he­roes in cri­sis, evok­ing the para­noid thrillers of the 1970s where in­di­vid­u­als are de­fence­less against po­lit­i­cal and cor­po­rate power. Wigand is an im­per­fect hero, out of his league and in con­flict. The real Bergman said, “The mes­sage of the movie is that in­di­vid­u­als can make a dif­fer­ence in a world dom­i­nated by mega-cor­po­ra­tions.”

Crit­ics loved the fi­nal prod­uct, the peo­ple at 60 Min­utes were am­biva­lent, and Brown & Wil­liamson claimed the film was based on “fab­ri­ca­tion and lies”. Ac­cu­rate or not, The In­sider is au­then­tic. Mann filmed Wigand’s de­po­si­tion in the court­room where it re­ally hap­pened —

a scene so in­tense that Bruce Mcgill, who played his lawyer, ripped his stitches from a surgery six weeks prior.

The film cre­ates ten­sion from the mun­dane: phone calls, a sushi din­ner, golf­ing at night. Cin­e­matog­ra­pher Dante Spinotti cap­tures char­ac­ters in close-up, in op­pres­sive spa­ces, lonely in the cor­ner of the frame. The film’s vi­o­lence is psy­cho­log­i­cal, pow­er­ful. Wigand sees a burn­ing car at the side of the road af­ter his tes­ti­mony: an omen, his life go­ing up in flames. In the fol­low­ing scene, he dis­cov­ers his wife has left him. Af­ter he re­ceives a bul­let in his mail­box and an emailed death threat, Wigand calls Bergman, who’s work­ing on a story in New Or­leans. He’s at a crime scene, a “white male sub­ject shot to death”. It’s a per­fect ex­pres­sion of Wigand’s state of mind.

In The In­sider, Brown & Wil­liamson is a de­hu­man­is­ing force threat­en­ing Wigand’s life with im­punity. We are in­tro­duced to Wigand as he talks his daugh­ter through a life-threat­en­ing asthma at­tack, ex­plain­ing ex­actly what is hap­pen­ing to her. Her fam­ily’s love and the truth help her get through it. This is the cos­mic op­po­site of the to­bacco in­dus­try, which know­ingly poi­sons peo­ple and buries the truth.

The film is about the price of hav­ing a con­science un­der cap­i­tal­ism, where money means more than hon­our and hu­man lives. Mann’s pro­tag­o­nists are the last of a dy­ing breed — men whose word is their cur­rency, backed up by ac­tion. But hav­ing prin­ci­ples comes at a cost. Wigand’s slow-mo­tion walk out of Brown & Wil­liamson’s re­volv­ing doors mir­rors Bergman’s exit from CBS. They’ve both been dis­il­lu­sioned. 60 Min­utes had a rep­u­ta­tion for in­tegrity, but what’s been bro­ken can never be fixed. Bergman’s and Wigand’s only sat­is­fac­tion is recog­nis­ing the other’s ac­tual worth. “To a net­work, prob­a­bly, we’re all com­modi­ties,” Bergman tells Wigand. “To me, you’re not a com­mod­ity. What you are is im­por­tant.”

Jef­frey Wigand loses his home, his fam­ily, his dig­nity, his mind. But maybe it’s all been worth it for the mo­ment when his un­al­tered 60 Min­utes in­ter­view airs, and his fam­ily watches. His older daugh­ter glances at him, fi­nally un­der­stand­ing why he sac­ri­ficed ev­ery­thing. Wigand is fi­nally re­deemed in his chil­dren’s eyes, and in his own.

CBS pro­ducer Low­ell Bergman (Al Pa­cino) and The Man Who Knew Too Much, Jef­frey Wigand (Rus­sell Crowe)

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