Knowing laughter filled the Walt Disney Company’s private screening room at 500 Park Avenue. The small crowd of print and television journalists that included redheaded ABC News chairman Roone Arledge, ABC News senior producer Chris Isham and ever-youthful WNBC-TV news anchor Chuck Scarborough had caught its first glimpse of British actor Christopher Plummer playing 60 Minutes ‘ Mike Wallace in The Insider , director Michael Mann’s movie about tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand.
In the two and a half hours to come, Mr. Mann would unfurl an engrossing story about the price of telling the truth in America in the 1990′s, but at that moment the crowd was enjoying Mr. Plummer’s plummy interpretation of Mr. Wallace. Mr. Plummer may have been missing some of Mr. Wallace’s baritone, and at times his British accent poked through, but he had gotten most everything else: the chin in the chest, eyeglasses, the hand gestures near his left ear, the vocal inflections and even the curmudgeonly bravado. In his introductory scene, Mr. Plummer as Mike Wallace gets into a verbal fight with a gun-toting Hezbollah bodyguard because he refuses to move his chair away from the Hezbollah chief. When Mr. Wallace spat out, “What the hell do you think I am? You think I’m going to karate him to death with this notepad?” the media crowd snorted with delight.
How could they not? In his galvanizing, occasionally hyperbolic epic of journalism in full stumble mode, Mr. Mann was giving these gathered media insiders a dramatic cinematic tour of their own backyard. In addition to Mr. Wallace, there on the screen were 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt, played by Philip Baker Hall, public relations executive John Scanlon, portrayed by Rip Torn and, centrally, 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, interpreted by Al Pacino. There is even a version of former CBS News president Eric Ober, renamed Eric Kluster in this movie.
Behind the snickers of recognition, though, there was genuine excitement among this crew of media insiders. Excitement at having been given an opportunity that has yet to be extended to Mr. Wallace, Mr. Hewitt or Mr. Scanlon. An opportunity to see a movie that weeks before its Nov. 5 release has been causing a shitstorm of controversy over its portrayal of a dark moment of CBS News.
Based on actual events, The Insider is about how Jeffrey Wigand, a former vice president of the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, decides to go before the 60 Minutes cameras and, among other things, accuse Brown & Williamson’s chief executive of lying to Congress when he claimed ignorance about the addictive properties of nicotine. But after Mr. Wigand put his personal and professional life at risk, CBS News executives initially caved on airing his interview when the network’s corporate general counsel warned that CBS could be sued for billions in tobacco-friendly Kentucky state court for if the piece ran.
But the 81-year-old Mr. Wallace-though given a comparatively sympathetic portrait in the movie as a kind of slick-haired, menschy Hamlet who agonizes through Mr. Mann’s screenplay to side first with the good guys, then with the bad guys, then finally makes a principled stand with the good guys-is furious. He has not seen the finished film, but he asked Mr. Mann for a copy of the script, and the director sent it to him. Apparently what really infuriated Mr. Wallace is the film’s suggestion that he did not really protest the CBS News executives’ decision until Mr. Bergman helps him see the light of day.
In one of several letters Mr. Wallace sent to Mr. Mann, the 60 Minutes correspondent wrote: “For you to make a film that suggests I would compromise years of building a reputation for accurate and fair reportage in order to what? TO PANDER TO MANAGEMENT? TO SELL OUT MY CONVICTIONS? TO FIND MY MORAL COMPASS AGAIN ONLY UNDER LOWELL BERGMAN’S TUTELAGE IS MINDLESS AND INSULTING.”
After 50 years in broadcasting, including some of TV’s most Olympian heights and a couple of brutal lows, Mr. Wallace was, apparently, in no mood to be condescended to or depicted as a waffling frontman being sermonized to by the dark ball of fire represented by Mr. Pacino’s Serpico-like version of Lowell Bergman. Nor, apparently, did 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt like being sketched as a spineless, sputtering Lou Grant ready to sell out both his producer and Dr. Wigand for a softer version of the story.
Weirdly, however, P.R. executive John Scanlon-who worked for Brown & Williamson whacking away at Dr. Wigand’s believability-and, as portrayed by a big-bellied Rip Torn as bearded Beelzebub himself, didn’t seem upset. Mr. Scanlon hasn’t seen the film, but said he has read every draft of the script, and, he said, “I prefer my fiction in print.”
Since then, Mr. Wallace and his boss, Mr. Hewitt, have been vocal in their criticism of The Insider , most recently, in an Oct. 15 piece by Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, but they have since decided to stop talking. Calls to their offices were referred to spokesman Kevin Tedesco, who said: “We’re reserving our right not to publicize their movie.”
Speaking from Los Angeles, Mr. Mann called the 60 Minutes vow of silence “a little late.”
“I think they have handled themselves poorly,” said Mr. Mann. “I mean, come on, these guys are on television every Sunday for the last 30 years. They go into people’s lives all the time. This is a motion picture. It’s something that’s happened to them. The film doesn’t represent that they authored these events. They’re victims along with everybody else at 60 Minutes of an intrusion of corporate interest into the news. And they were all on the same train wreck together. And everybody acted and reacted in different ways.”
Mr. Mann then added that when Mr. Wallace went on Charlie Rose in November 1995 and essentially admitted that 60 Minutes had made a mistake “that was brave and courageous.”
“This isn’t about public image,” said Mr. Mann. We’re not publicists. And we’re not yellow press journalists. We’re not out slamming people. In fact, if the film errs, it errs on the side of being cautious. And when we couldn’t nail down things, we didn’t go there. We knew we didn’t want to pull any punches, and when you don’t want to pull punches, you better not go speculating.”
Vanity Fair writer Marie Brenner, whose story about Dr. Wigand inspired Mr. Mann’s movie, said she believed the controversy “has to do with the complexities of the process of the news business in the 1990′s. It’s what we all live with. The fear of corporate bigfooting.
“They are angry,” she said of the 60 Minutes crew, “because The Insider portrays a moment in their lives as newsmen in which they momentarily stumbled and acted with the corporations. No one ever imagines that that moment is going to be illuminated by movie cameras.”
Mr. Wallace’s ire aside, he doesn’t come off looking that bad. Mr. Wigand and Mr. Bergman are clearly the heroes of The Insider , but Mr. Wallace gets to redeem himself and show a quality of conscience and turmoil which, in the lesson-play construction of the movie, finally brings him out on Mr. Bergman’s side.
As depicted in the movie, when CBS corporate leadership and Mr. Hewitt begin to waffle about airing the Wigand interview, Mr. Wallace tells Mr. Bergman. “I’m with Don on this.”
But after Mr. Wallace’s attempt to explain the situation on his own network’s newscast is shredded to a one-word answer, and as Mr. Bergman’s character gets busy, essentially becoming a behind-the-scenes whistle-blower for his own company, and the story breaks in the New York Times (with former New York Post editor Pete Hamill playing the 3 A.M. reporter who somehow crashes the story by the morning edition), Mr. Wallace visits Mr. Bergman in his hotel room and makes a speech about how a guy toward the end of his career trajectory wonders about his legacy. “How will I be regarded in the end?” he asks Mr. Bergman, noting, “History only remembers most what you did last. And should that be fronting a segment that allowed a tobacco giant to crash this network, does it give someone at my time of life pause? Yeah.”
Then, in one of the movie’s climactic scenes, after agonizing in Mr. Bergman’s hotel room on journalism, his legacy and mortality in an aria worthy of William Holden in Network , Mr. Wallace gets to tell Mr. Hewitt off. “You fucked up, Don,” he says.
When Mr. Hewitt protests that the Wigand story is “old news … these things have a half-life of 15 minutes.” Mr. Wallace disputes his boss and tells him, “No, that’s fame. Fame has a 15-minute half-life. Infamy lasts a little longer.”
Mr. Bergman acknowledges that the legacy speech never occurred as it happens in The Insider , but he said: “I’ve had conversations with Mike where he’s talked about his legacy.”
“The movie is not a documentary,” said Mr. Bergman, “but from emotional and philosophical points of view and from the point of view of the issues, it’s an accurate movie.”
That seems, as almost always, to be the crux of the issue with a big studio picture made about an event that happened-even one that took place on television. “For a moviemaker to lose accuracy in the name of drama,” said Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, “that’s not a problem in society. It’s only a problem if you’re one of the people the movie’s about. It’s only a problem if the viewer confuses what he or she is seeing on the screen with what actually happened. In this case, the film, by the admission of the filmmakers, is a fictionalized, dramatized version of events. It is done from the completely one-sided perspective of one of the participants, Lowell Bergman.”
A few people in the 60 Minutes camp have managed to see The Insider . Correspondent Lesley Stahl is one, and while Ms. Stahl said she thought the portrait of Mr. Wigand was “superb,” she said that Mr. Wallace “redeemed himself much more than the movie suggests. For much longer and much harder. He was out there publicly criticizing the place.” And, said Ms. Stahl, “the quality of what he did is not in the movie.”
Movies and journalism have collided often in the last 25 years, nowhere more paradigmatically than in Alan Pakula’s film All the President’s Men , which crystallized the national memory of Watergate reporting. Most memorable of all, perhaps, in that movie, superseding the public consciousness of the real man, was Jason Robards’ portrayal of Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of The Washington Post . Asked what effect The Insider would have on his friend Mr. Wallace’s reputation, Mr. Bradlee replied, “I would think it would take a real hatchet job to ruin Mike Wallace’s image. He’s had how many years in everybody’s living rooms as a crusader and a force for good.” Then Mr. Bradlee said, “If some movie comes along and scars that [image], so be it, but it isn’t going to change the obit.”
Follow Frank DiGiacomo via RSS.