Political Film Society - Newsletter #58 - November 22, 1999

November 22, 1999


Publicity about The Insider stresses the courage of a whistleblowing research scientist, formerly employed by a tobacco company, who in 1995 exposed the fact that cigarettes have been altered in recent decades to enhance their addictivity. As a result of his testimony, there have been successful lawsuits, with damages totaling $246 billion to fifty states in recovery of Medicare and Medicaid funds. Indeed, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe) is at the center of the film. We see how in 1993 he was fired by Brown & Williamson, a tobacco company, because he objected to the fraud, how he and his family were terrorized (death threats, lawsuits, smear campaigns) to the point that his spouse divorced him and gained custody of his two daughters, how he testified in court against the tobacco companies, and how he then became "teacher of the year" in his new career as a high school teacher in Kentucky. But the unexpected exposť of The Insider, occupying more film footage, is how CBS mishandled the story. The focus is on Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino), former Ramparts muckraker, who is a producer of Mike Wallace's segment of the television program "60 Minutes." Bergman accidentally gets wind of a possible big story from Wigand, cultivates Wigand to divulge the incredible secrets of the most celebrated fraud in American history, promises that Wigand will be protected from bodily harm by supplying attorneys and bodyguards, and escorts Wigand both to court and to an interview with Mike Wallace in the CBS News studio in New York. At this point, however, the tobacco company threatens CBS with a lawsuit that would bankrupt the network. CBS corporate executives demur, tell CBS News to shelve the interview, and Mike Wallace (played by Christopher Plummer) capitulates. Bergman feels betrayed; he promised Wigand that the story would air, so he does an end run: He leaks the story to the New York Times to humiliate CBS, which finally runs the interview. Then Bergman quits to join the faculty at the University of California in Berkeley while serving as a producer of the PBS investigative program "Frontline."

Directed by Michael Mann, based on the Vanity Fair article "The Man Who Knew Too Much" by Marie Brenner, The Insider reveals how unchecked corporate power has tamed formerly independent journalism, a paradigm that can serve to explain why the public agenda excludes so many urgent social issues-the barbarous death penalty sentence inflicted upon so many innocent Blacks, lack of medical insurance for citizens of the richest country on earth, elections bought through gaping campaign finance loopholes, and many others. However, the distributor, Disney/Touchstone, owns rival ABC, and there is a hint in the film that Peter Jennings would not have blinked if he got the story first. We see testimony before Congress by the "seven dwarfs," the CEOs of the major tobacco companies, as they opine that cigarettes are not addictive, contrary to evidence reported by their own scientists, yet their perjury has not brought about prison terms for any of them. We hear a detailed explanation of the chemical process whereby additives have been deliberately designed to make cigarettes "nicotine delivery systems." A single puff, thus, delivers carcinogenic substances directly to the body, while non-tobacco additives hook minds to repeat the self-destructive habit until serious health problems emerge. Wigand is currently on the lecture circuit, donating his speaking fees to Smoke-Free Kids, a nonprofit that he started in his new hometown, Charleston, South Carolina. The Insider, which bears the tagline "Warning: Exposing the Truth May be Hazardous," has been nominated by the Political Film Society for two 1999 awards -- as the best film exposť and the best film raising consciousness of the need for greater democracy. MH

DEMOCRACY: Fight Club, The Insider, Naturally Native, Three Kings
Bastards, Cabaret Balkan, The Insider, Naturally Native, One Man's Hero,
Three Kings, Three Seasons
The General's Daughter, Hard, Naturally Native, One Man's Hero, Three Kings, Three Seasons, Xiu Xiu
PEACE: Cabaret Balkan, Earth, One Man's Hero, Three Kings, West Beirut