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)