Inside the “The Insider”

November 8, 1999 at 6:00 PM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: For over 30 years, the CBS news program “60 Minutes” has broadcast thousands of probing stories on every topic imaginable. Now one story they hesitated to air is the subject of a new film and a renewed controversy.

ACTOR AL PACINO: This guy is the ultimate insider.

TERENCE SMITH: “The Insider” tells the story of “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman, as portrayed by Al Pacino, and tobacco company executive and whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, played by Australian actor Russell Crowe.

AL PACINO: Nothing, I mean nothing, will ever be the same again.

TERENCE SMITH: In 1995, Bergman convinced Wigand to break a confidentiality agreement with his former employer and reveal the inner workings of the tobacco industry to “60 Minutes.” But CBS executives, fearing a multibillion-dollar lawsuit from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, Wigand’s former employer, pulled the interview before it was broadcast. After several months and much public embarrassment, “60 Minutes” finally aired the Wigand interview on Feb. 4, 1996. Producer Bergman sees the film as a tale of corporate media setting survival above principle.

LOWELL BERGMAN: It’s a story which “60 Minutes” won’t do about censorship in network television and the limitations of what goes on in an era where major corporations control everything.

TERENCE SMITH: “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace has blasted the film as a mischaracterization of the actual events. He expressed his displeasure in a letter to the film’s director, Michael Mann, saying: “To make a film that suggests I would compromise years of building a reputation for accurate and fair reportage is mindless and insulting.”

DON HEWITT: It was … “60 Minutes” was prohibited from doing it.

TERENCE SMITH: “60 Minutes” Executive Producer Don Hewitt, in a November 1998 interview with the “NewsHour,” defended himself and his program against the charge that they knuckled under to corporate demands.

DON HEWITT: Look, the only way I could have put that tobacco story on the air was to go find a bunch of guerrillas and go take the transmitter, right, and stand there with guns.

TERENCE SMITH: And broadcast it yourself?

DON HEWITT: And broadcast the story. They said it’s their transmitter, it’s their network. I couldn’t put that on.

TERENCE SMITH: However, the movie paints Hewitt as little more than a tool of CBS management.

ACTOR PHILIP BAKER HALL (AS DON HEWITT): We’ve got a meeting at Black Rock first thing in the morning.

TERENCE SMITH: Criticisms of the film have centered on Director Mann’s acknowledgment that he compresses time in the film, combines some actual events, and invents others.

SPOKESMAN: Keep rolling, back it up.

TERENCE SMITH: But nonetheless, he says, the film still adheres to the larger truth of the story.

MICHAEL MANN: If it’s a falsification, if it smears people, if it manufactures events that never ever occurred and changes the ultimate inherent meaning, you know, in what happened, then it should be condemned. But on the other hand, if it’s truthful and faithful to what occurred, then I think it’s OK.

TERENCE SMITH: Other recent motion pictures have taken actual events and dramatized them.

ACTOR: The intelligence murdered the commander in chief — is that what you said?

TERENCE SMITH: Among those films, Oliver Stone’s “JFK” was widely criticized for painting conspiracy theory as truth. Lowell Bergman says the differences don’t stop there.

LOWELL BERGMAN: “JFK” was a conspiracy story in which Oliver Stone decided to use real names in a situation where there was very little in the way of factual backing for what he’s talking about. In this I would venture to say that there is tremendous factual backing.

TERENCE SMITH: CBS news president Andrew Heyward offered this comment in an internal memo circulated within CBS News last week: “By their own admission,” said Heyward, “the filmmakers have taken substantial license to satisfy Hollywood’s demands for drama. As they said, life is not a movie, and the reverse in this case is true as well.” On that last point, producer Lowell Bergman and his former colleague at CBS seem to agree.

SPOKESMAN: People know that this is a movie. It’s a dramatization, not a documentary.

TERENCE SMITH: “The Insider” debuted this weekend in fourth place at the box office, earning some $7 million.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining us now is “The Insider’s” director, Michael Mann. His other credits include the films “Heat” and “Last of the Mohicans” and New York Times Culture Editor John Darnton. Darnton is a novelist and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has been with the Times for 33 years. We invited Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt and the president of CBS News to join us this evening, but they declined. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. John Darnton, you’ve seen this film. What is your view of it and the way it deals with the reality of a contemporary situation involving real-life figures?

JOHN DARNTON: Well, first of all, let me say I like the movie tremendously. I think it’s a very powerful film. I think it reminded me of “All the President’s Men” the way it takes you behind the scenes to the power centers of the country, and it delivers a very good message. It’s a very good film. Having said that, I have to admit I’m a bit bothered by this notion of taking liberties with actual facts in the name of drama.

We could all points to films and you already have that have done this. Some of them are films that dealt with events long ago. This one is slightly different because it deals with more or less contemporary events, uses real names of people who apparently do feel they’ve been badly abused and they find it difficult to look up at the big screen at the character playing them saying words that they themselves never said.

So while the broad outline of events may be more or less accurate, it’s the little details that give me a problem as a journalist. The movie opens with the producer, Lowell Bergman, blindfolded, being taken through the streets of Beirut — which never happened like that — and it ends with him quitting on the spot from CBS, which I’m told also never happened quite like that.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Michael Mann what is the responsibility of a director, of a film in a situation like this, his responsibility to the facts?

MICHAEL MANN: Well, first of all it is a very individual question. I think the responsibility is to be true to, to be true or faithful to what happened. That is an obligation that Eric Roth and I elected to impose upon ourselves.

TERENCE SMITH: Your co-author of the script?

MICHAEL MANN: Exactly, co-author of the script. I think there is a confusion between the terms of dramatization and faithful. We maintain that we dramatize and at the same time we are faithful to what happened — and faithful to what happened in large ways and also faithful to what happened in small ways. Now I don’t think you can condemn an entire method of recreating experience for other human beings to see which is what dramatization does.

If something is not faithful to what occurred or not faithful to the truth or events, it deserves to be condemned, but our picture is not. Our picture is faithful to what happened. Lowell Bergman quit. He quit “60 Minutes.” He had a contract that he could have renegotiated to his great advantage. He scooped the Unabomber, he had gotten the show on the air and he wouldn’t couldn’t work there anymore and when I asked him why he said “I’m not going to tell the source of the next story, ‘Hang with me, you’ll be fine — maybe.'”

TERENCE SMITH: Are you arguing that you went to a sort of larger truth and dramatized or fictionalized details along the road, is that your argument?

MICHAEL MANN: No. I’m arguing that the even the fictionalized details along the road mean what they mean. When Mike says, you know, as a very human reaction to assault upon “60 Minutes” by corporate attorneys, ‘I’m with Don on this,’ did he say ‘I’m with Don on this?’ No. But Mike did say and mean and act exactly that on the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post and in his actions and on “Charlie Rose.” So you know, we change, give you another example from “All the President’s Men,” nobody in “All the President’s Men” ever said “Follow the money.” The only man who said, “Follow the money” is William Goldman and in that, he summarized very accurately and acutely a number of analytical perspectives and agendas that took them along that track. That is the function of drama, but I think you can applaud drama or condemn it on its faithfulness. This picture is dead faithful.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Let’s ask John Darnton if you are comfortable with that explanation?

JOHN DARNTON: Well, I like drama but I’m always wary when I hear this argument of higher truth. I’m not sure what I know what higher truth is or lower truth. I think there is truth and untruth. And I think the more you deviate from facts at hand, the more you are moving away from the truth. I think life is complicated and messy and filled with grays — not blacks and whites. Life is filled with not heroes and villages in stark colors but us, normal people, some noble, some ignoble, more or less trying to muddle through.

In this particular case, I don’t take issue with the story in its broadest form. I don’t know all that much about it, but we’ve written about it in the Times. I think it’s basically true that this was a rather sorry episode for “60 Minutes” — that at one point for a day or maybe two Mr. Wallace wavered or perhaps even went as Margaret Thatcher would put it then changed his mind and became a forceful advocate for airing the interview. I think CBS lawyers probably really did — just as depicted — intervene and basically prevent or at least argue so strongly that the interview should not be aired. That no one dare do it.

TERENCE SMITH: Let’s — finish your point.

JOHN DARNTON: I was going to say I do think it’s dangerous to say there is a kind of higher truth that emerges in these things. There is not. That is drama. If you want to —

MICHAEL MANN: What I am maintaining is that it’s the opposite. I agree with John. The whole appeal to this picture is that people are human beings. They are seen around — they are seen — that is one of the biggest problems I have kind of finding myself in the position I’m in — because we portray what Mark and Don do as the most human of responses which is to waver, to have pause, to have some hesitation and to correct your course.

So the film actually does not really condemn these men. They take it as a condemnation in much stronger and more voluble terms than in fact the film does. So I think the film is dimensional. It does not — its strength, its appeal to me in this material, was exactly that — exactly the dimensionality of grays. There are no saints in this picture. Jeffrey Wigand is not a saint; Lowell Bergman is not a saint.

TERENCE SMITH: Any quick response do you have, Michael Mann, to Mike Wallace and Don Hewit in their complaint?

MICHAEL MANN: I think Chris Plumber probably said it better than I can say it when he suggested that to waver is in fact human and that’s what the film portrays and I don’t really see why they would have that much of a problem with it.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. John Darnton, there is the larger issue here, which is the portrait in this film of corporate media backing down in the face of what might be described as it own self-interest. Does that ring true to you?

JOHN DARNTON: Well, it sounds true, certainly especially when you see it splashed up there on the screen. That’s why I say and I would like to repeat — I think it’s a very good film and it really carries a good message. It shows what can happen to a network — or a newspaper, for that matter, when it becomes part of a larger corporate entity — and its top officials become subject to pressures, corporate pressures the like of which they’ve never seen and end up betraying their mission. That is something that we could all identify with today.

Again, though, it’s that issue of blurring fact and fiction that is something that we also say today and we often see it in publishing houses that are part of larger conglomerates where there is tremendous pressure say on the bottom line and that produce biographies, that take liberties. We see it —

TERENCE SMITH: You are thinking of Edmund Morris and the Reagan biography?

JOHN DARNTON: Exactly. I passed by a bookstore with a sign in the window that said customers should know the new biography on Ronald Reagan can be found in our fiction section. All that is detrimental to people’s trust in the written word or the visual image. We now have, of course, new magazines coming into existence that are commissioning articles that they hope will become movies. There is this general sense that things — and I have to say even newspapers in well publicized cases have had to fire columnists who have taken liberties with the truth because it’s so tempting to tweak a little fact here or there and try and improve upon reality. It’s almost human to give in.

TERENCE SMITH: A final, quick word. We’re almost out of time. Michael Mann.

MICHAEL MANN: I must say that our challenge was to construct a drama that was as searing and intense and raw as what Jeffrey Wigand and Lowell Bergman lived with — Lowell Bergman particularly on one issue, which is what happens when the journalistic imperative that this is an important news story that’s got to cut across corporate agendas — when that imperative gets squashed.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Michael Mann, John Darnton, thank you both very much.