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In Search of an Objective History: Michael Mann's The Insider

By Lindsay Elizabeth Totams, with comment by Lauren Korzeniewski

[1] Growing up, I had always been a gullible child. If someone had told me the sky was falling, I would inevitably look up. As my naivety led me to be the butt of many jokes, I grew less and less trusting. I learned that if something looks too good to be true, then it probably is. I learned not to buy products from infomercials. I even had to sadly face the reality that the WWF wrestling matches I so faithfully watched each weekend were fake. My eyes had been forced open and made to look at the light. But when I looked back down at the world around me, my vision was blurred. I had become cynical.

[2] In retrospect, this change was a somewhat positive one. I began questioning everything, taking nothing for granted. I watched movies and television shows with a look of disgust, knowing that the unlikely scenarios portrayed on the screen could never happen in real life. When the Reel American History project came my way, I knew it was the perfect playground for my inquisitive mind and distrustful nature. I thought about how I would be a detective, uncovering the real facts about what happened. Nothing would get by me! I imagined myself picking apart the film, scene by scene, and raking the filmmaker over the coals for daring to manipulate history.

[3] After choosing to study The Insider, I sat down to watch it. For close to three hours I was riveted by the drama unfolding on the screen. I was completely swept up in the story. As the last scene faded away, I sat silently with my emotions: sadness for Jeffrey Wigand's losses, an utter hatred for the entire tobacco industry (at that point, synonymous with "evil" in my mind), and a deep sense of admiration for my new hero, Lowell Bergman. But then a new frame came up on the screen and interrupted my thoughts. I squinted to see what the small print said: "Subsequent to the events dramatized here, the tobacco industry in 1998 settled the lawsuits filed against it by Mississippi and 49 other states for $246 billion." Good, I thought to myself with a sense of triumph, serves them right for terrorizing a poor man like Jeffrey Wigand! But then more text appeared: "Although based on a true story, certain events in this motion picture have been fictionalized for dramatic effect."

[4] Oh...right. I had forgotten what my purpose was in watching The Insider: to untangle the "real" from the "reel." I quickly recovered from my initial sense of disbelief, rationalizing that obviously a few minor details must have needed to be altered here and there. After all, it was a major motion picture. How could a movie expect to recreate a real-life event perfectly? But surely the version of the 60 Minutes/Big Tobacco scandal I had just seen had to be the correct version, right? Then...uh-oh...more text on the screen: "The source of the death threats against the Wigands never was identified and no one was ever charged or prosecuted." Yes it was! I almost screamed at the television. Can't you see that the big bad tobacco executives were responsible for making Wigand's life a living hell?! Now I was filled with anger, because it seemed like Brown & Williamson had gotten away with murder. It didn't seem fair. This made me all the more determined to find out everything I could in order to prove that Michael Mann had accurately represented the facts portrayed in The Insider.

Certain Events Have Been Fictionalized For Dramatic Effect

[5] Still, I began my research with what I thought was an objective eye. I compiled article upon article that looked favorably upon The Insider as an excellent film with an important message. A few journalists mentioned that certain parts of the film were inaccurate or even untrue, but I dismissed these at first, mostly because they were using 60 Minutes journalist Mike Wallace as a reference -- a questionable source considering the less than flattering homage paid to him courtesy of The Insider. In the film Wallace comes off less like a serious journalist and more like a pampered TV persona who is spoon-fed his "scoops" by 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman. In "Truth & Consequences," Richard Lacayo explains why Wallace is upset: "as he sees it, Mann has changed not just the details of the Wigand story but also the crux of it, making Wallace one of the heavies in a drama about nothing less than integrity -- who has it, who lacks it, who's willing to pay the price for it." I chalked up Wallace's complaints to nothing more than a bunch of sour grapes.

[6] I gave even less credence to documents that quoted Brown & Williamson's disapproval of the film, such as a series of press releases published by the company that categorically denied all the wrongdoings attributed to B&W in The Insider. B&W chairman Nick Brookes stated: "Contrary to what the movie shows, we did not send threatening messages, and we did not put a bullet in his mailbox." But all I saw was one word at the top of the page "Opinion." Brookes' article was merely an opinion piece. Not until I read the words of several other journalists who were a bit uneasy with The Insider's claim to be "based on a true story" did I begin to doubt my judgment of how faithfully Mann had documented these supposed actual events.

[7] I continued along on my fervent quest for the truth, at this point still convinced of my original conclusion. But as I was poring over yet another article's findings about the various inconsistencies and misrepresentations of truth found in The Insider, the doubts began to grow, and I was slowly consumed by a gnawing feeling that I may have made a mistake. I found that arguments coming from my "opposition" were starting to make sense. Until I read Holman W. Jenkins' critique of Jeffrey Wigand's credibility as a whistleblower, I had never even thought of the fact that Wigand's motivations may have stemmed from his unappealing status as a disgruntled ex-employee of Brown & Williamson. As Jenkins notes, "Mr. Wigand had confided in his diary in 1991 that B&W had lost its stomach for the safe cigarette project, but he stuck around collecting his $300,000 salary until he was fired in 1993. Was he really the right person to turn into a celebrity witness for a politicized shakedown of the tobacco industry?" (see comment by Lauren Korzeniewski)

[8] Also under fire is the film's chilling portrayal of Wigand being stalked and threatened by B&W, especially the scene in which Wigand opens up his mailbox to find a bullet inside. While this event did in fact happen, there was never any evidence to even suspect that B&W was responsible. Lucretia Nimocks, Wigand's wife at the time, agrees. Even more shockingly, Nimocks believes that her ex-husband put the bullet in his own mailbox (Osborne 78). This certainly put a different spin on Wigand's story, as well as my favorable impression of him. I feared that my idolization of the crusading truth-seeker Lowell Bergman might also be in jeopardy...

[9] In the muddy waters of fact vs. fiction, there is one thing that is clear: The Insider heroicizes Lowell Bergman. In it, he appears to be singlehandedly reponsible for scoring and ultimately saving the Wigand interview. In addition Bergman comes across as the only 60 Minutes staffer willing to stand up to CBS. In one of the film's key scenes, Bergman angrily argues to Don Hewitt that 60 Minutes is responsible for bringing people the news, first and foremost -- it should not have to answer to anyone, especially the corporate big-wigs. Finished with his ranting, Bergman turns to longtime colleague Mike Wallace for support. To his shock, Wallace replies: "I'm with Don." In a later scene Wallace defends his decision to Bergman as a choice made to protect the reputation of his illustrious career; Wallace knows he is at the end of his days as a top journalist, and he does not want to leave on a scandalous note. Wallace eventually comes around to Bergman's side, but not until much later in the film. The implication made by the film is clear: a cowardly Wallace caved to his bosses rather than stand up for what he believed in. Bergman is then the only one with any integrity and the only one left to save the day. The Insider ends on a symbolic note for Bergman. After the Wigand interview finally airs in its entirety, a dejected Bergman knows that his days at 60 Minutes are now over; he can no longer work for a news organization that doesn't have the same principles that he does. Without a second glance back, Bergman exits through the revolving doors -- a martyr for his cause.

[10] But is that how it really went down? Perhaps, as many articles have suggested, Bergman's role was inflated to further his stance as the "hero" of the film; simultaneously, it served to bring down everyone else at CBS, especially Wallace. After all, Bergman is a personal friend of Michael Mann's, and the two worked closely on the film's script. Knowing that Bergman had a hand in the creation of The Insider made me wary of just how objectively he presented his story to Mann. Wallace has repeatedly denied that Bergman's version is correct, stating that he only briefly went along with CBS' decision (at most, for 24 hours) but then was right there with Bergman. Wallace also denies that protecting his reputation had anything to do with his initial stance. D.M. Osborne reported that "Wallace was galled to see himself portrayed in the script as one of the cowardly corporate drones, someone who had lost his nerve at the crucial moment" (75) -- a pretty humiliating characterization of one of the most respected journalists of our time. Because of the fact that Wallace and Bergman have each painted a drastically different picture of what went on at CBS, I no longer knew whom I believed. Consider also the fact that Bergman really didn't quit over the Wigand situation; in fact, he remained with 60 Minutes for another two years! He must not have felt all that strongly about his ideals if he continued working there. I definitely gave Bergman too much credit.

Fooled

[11] But then all of a sudden something even more astonishing occurred to me. Instead of objectively seeking out the truth behind The Insider like I had planned, I had fallen victim to the lure of Michael Mann's convincing enplotment! By immersing myself in the movie, I had unknowingly accepted Mann's filmic version of the truth. Because I formed an emotional attachment to the likable characters of Wigand and Bergman, I never once hesitated to believe their stories. Thankfully, extensive research forced me to be a more critical analyst, and I saw how Mann had twisted and manipulated various scenes and real-life characters to his advantage as a filmmaker. Besides blowing the achievements of Bergman out of proportion, other discrepancies between fact and fiction bothered me. For instance, the scene where Wigand's wife receives an emailed death threat written in blood-red type never happened. Also completely fictional was a frightening scene in which Wigand is being closely watched while he is golfing at night. Both of these scenes contribute to the notion that Brown & Williamson was terrorizing the Wigand family. If you take these two scenes out of the film, as well as the one where Wigand finds the bullet in his mailbox (supposedly planted there by him, according to FBI documents), there really isn't anything left to suggest that B&W did anything out of line to intimidate Wigand! Yet by adding these events into the film, the audience easily identifies the tobacco company as the bad guys.

[12] Was Mann's filmic version of the truth "wrong"? No. He is a filmmaker, and his job is to tell an entertaining story to an audience. Not only that, as an American, he is granted the inalienable right of freedom of speech. The Insider captures only HIS perception of what happened. Unfortunately, Mann's version may not agree with the version that others involved, namely Mike Wallace and B&W, remember in their minds. Yet as a public figure Wallace must accept that he is fair game for criticism; that is one of the prices paid for fame. But more disturbing is how the role of film as history affects the masses. You saw how I was fooled by Mann. I fell for the trap -- hook, line, and sinker! What worries me is that a large majority of the audience may not be aware of just how inaccurate films are, especially those that claim to be rooted in fact. To quote Lacayo again, "In the end, as audience members we're all outsiders...Much of what we may ultimately believe could be based on what we intuit from the performances." When a filmmaker leads his audience to believe that they are watching fact rather than fiction, he is doing them a great injustice.

[13] Some would argue that by inserting the disclaimer, "Although based on a true story, certain events in this motion picture have been fictionalized for dramatic effect," Mann has protected himself from any criticism concerning the authenticity of The Insider. To me, that statement, which appears only after the film is over, is like a filmmaker's "Get out of jail free" card. It's Mann's way of saying, "Hey, don't blame me -- I told you guys this is just a movie!" The problem arises when it is clear that audiences are still misinterpreting the filmic history as the truth! No matter how many times the disclaimer is reiterated, an audience will, more likely than not, tend to believe the version that Mann has given them! Even I believed Mann's presentation of the events. A movie seduces you with its glamorous stars, scenic landscapes, and swelling overtures. Mann himself may not be directly responsible for the audience's misconceptions, but it becomes his problem when it is such a widespread occurence in our society. The filmmaker must then take on some of the responsibility of the misconception.

[14] While this degree of responsibility of the filmmaker applies to all such films, the controversy surrounding The Insider presents a particular irony. Through the way he chose to script his story, Mann is critiquing the CBS decision to axe the Wigand interview. This is obvious due to the good-guy/bad-guy complex he establishes by pitting his hero, Bergman, against the money-hungry heads of CBS Corporate. Carefully worded scripting hints at the fact that CBS may have backed down in order to protect an impending merger; basically, Mann is insinuating that CBS had a hidden agenda that would have taken precedence over preserving the integrity of 60 Minutes anyway. According to the film, all the talk about "tortious interference" was most likely not the reason for the canned segment. CBS denies this accusation to this day, maintaining that the fear of a multi-billion dollar lawsuit from B&W was the only factor influencing its decision to pull the segment.

[15] Thus, Mann has accused CBS of looking out for its best interests financially, no matter what the damage is to its top news show. Therein lies the irony, because that is exactly what Mann himself has done, simply by the virtue of his profession. As a filmmaker, he chose which aspects of this story to bring to light and which ones to exclude. He created a hero out of an individual who, in real life, most likely does not deserve all the credit that his movie character receives. Every action made by Mann while creating this film was deliberate. He is not an innocent bystander, despite all his claims that The Insider is just a movie. That's right -- it is just a movie, but I'm not sure the phrase "just a movie" can really be used anymore. We have seen how powerful this forum can be. Even I was convinced that what I saw on the screen had to be the truth. Film must not be treated as a reliable source from which to objectively learn history.

History Redefined

[16] So where can one turn for a true objective presentation of history? The answer is nowhere. I have come to realize that history can never be objective, because it is reported and recorded by us -- human beings. By nature, humans are not only infallible but also emotional. Our eyes will always see history through a subjective lens, colored by each individual's past, beliefs, and feelings. This in turn will be the way that we report it, just as we perceived it. It may not be in sync with how another individual witnessed the same event, but that is inevitable. We need to change our definition of history to incorporate all the different viewpoints; we must realize the power that comes with a subjective view of history. This new form of history is rich with the various voices that will be heard. No longer will only the ones in power decide what history is important for the masses to learn. Most importantly, this new form of history puts each individual in control...you have the power to form your own conclusions. We are all historians. It's time we took our jobs more seriously.

Comments

Lauren Korzeniewski (Feb. 2009)

Lindsay raises an interesting point when she discusses how she connected with Jeffrey Wigand in this film. Throughout the film, I felt differently than Lindsay; I could not help but question the motives of Wigand as he lost his family and allowed them to be threatened and possibly even hurt. He has no clear motive, except that Bergman somewhat manipulates him to get the story. Although out of all the characters in the film Bergman comes out on top as far as the viewers' respect, I still cannot help but feel that he is out for himself and his career, trying to get the best story, regardless of the cost to Wigand. Wigand himself seems more concerned with getting back at the company that fired him than with doing the right thing for the public, which we can see in the scene about a half hour into the film when Wigand meets with his boss at B&W. I can identify more with the research that Lindsay points out, questioning basically every character in the film, rather than with her reaction to the film. While reading the scene analysis and doing my own, I do agree that Mann tries to hold Bergman and Wigand in high esteem. However, I can't help but feel that his failure to clearly explain his characters' motives was in some part intentional, built in to make more cynical and wary viewers like myself skeptical of everyone. And in the end, that is the job of the director, to make the audience question everyone and to draw their own conclusions.

Brookes, Nick. "Film Full of Inaccuracies." USA Today 19 Nov. 1999: 18A. http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/USAToday/access/46499708.html?FMT=ABS

Jenkins, Holman W., Jr. "Forget the Movie and TV Show. I'll Wait for the Book." Junk Science.com. http://www.junkscience.com/nov99/jenkins.htm

Lacayo, Richard. "Truth and Consequences." Time 1 Nov. 1999: 18.

Osborne, D.M. "Real to Reel." Brill's Content July/August 1999: 75-80.