Sunday, June 25, 2017
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Michael Mann’s 1999 film presents profiles in courage. Jeffrey Wigand’s decision to act for the greater good by telling the truth about the tobacco industry causes him to endure personal suffering. The title of the movie is ironic. Wigand was a corporate insider of the status quo, but, by doing the right thing, which should represent normal behavior, he becomes an outsider. But, the CBS producer, Lowell Bergman, must also fight against resistance and the threat of occupational exile, in order to get Wigand’s information out to the public.
The story starts far from American shores in the Middle East. The camera puts the audience in the position of Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer for the highly rated and well-respected TV news magazine, 60 Minutes, who has a hood over his head. Hezbollah soldiers take him to meet Sheikh Fadlallah, the leader of the militant organization. After Lowell sets up a meeting between the Sheikh and CBS correspondent Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), and the Hezbollah people have left, Lowell tells his assistant “Take your blindfold off. Welcome to the world.” Symbolically, until the journalists deliver the information to us, we reside in the darkness of our ignorance.
The scene switches to scientist Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe, in an Oscar-nominated performance). He is already becoming an outcast, as he cleans out his desk while the other employees in white lab coats have an office celebration, their jovial attitudes contrasting with his solemn one. There is a slow motion shot of him walking out of the doors of his former place of work, which is a foreshadowing of the last shot of the movie. He drives to his upper-middle-class suburban Kentucky house, which he afforded by taking money from a company that actually undermined the health of the citizens living there, and where he now feels out of place. He delays telling his wife, Liane (Diane Venora), that the tobacco company, Brown and Williamson, fired him. Her first response is not to ask how her husband is doing. Instead, her concern is one of self-preservation, asking about their expenses, and health benefits for their daughter who has asthma. It seems ironic that Wigand, who worked for a business that contributed to so many lung ailments, should have a child suffering from a breathing disorder. Jeffrey, feeling under attack for letting his family down, offers the reassurance that his severance package was a good one, and it included health benefits.
Lowell receives an anonymous package of documents containing the results of a study analyzing fire risks due to cigarette smoking. He needs a technical consultation, and someone recommends Jeffrey. When Lowell calls his house, Jeffrey’s wife answers, and after Lowell says he is with 60 Minutes, she tells Lowell that her husband doesn’t want to speak with him, without even knowing the reason for the call, since she assumes it has to do with his job termination. Being a journalist, Lowell knows there is a story here. (There is a picture of Caesar Chavez on Lowell’s wall, suggesting he admires a rebel who fights for truth, as did the Latino leader). After some back and forth faxes, they meet at a hotel close to Brown and Williamson’s offices. Jeffrey acts very paranoid about the meeting, suspicious of the room service person knocking at the door. Jeffrey says he can do the consultation since it deals with Philip Morris, and does not pertain to his job. His insistence that he can’t say anything else causes Lowell to become extremely curious.
Shortly after his meeting with Lowell, Jeffrey’s former boss, Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon), calls Jeffrey in to set down new guidelines for his confidentiality agreement. If he does not comply, all benefits will be terminated. It is possible that the company was following Jeffrey and knew of his meeting with Lowell. Jeffrey is quite angry at the meeting, questioning any justification for calling those present being in the service of true science. He says, “So, what you’re saying is it wasn’t enough to fire me for no good reason. Now you question my integrity? On top of the humiliation of being fired, you threaten me? You threaten my family?” He curses Sandefur, and storms out. Then, he calls Lowell in a rage, saying he sold him out. Lowell gets him to listen to logic, telling him why would he give him up, especially before he received any information from Jeffrey.
Lowell and Jeffrey meet again in the latter’s car during a downpour, indicating the storm of resistance they will have to weather. Not all corporations should be judged the same, according to Jeffrey. He felt that the CEO of Johnson and Johnson did the right thing during the Tylenol scare a while back. The head of that company immediately pulled all bottles off of the shelves, and installed tamper-resistance caps. He put the safety of the people ahead of acquiring wealth. Jeffrey tells Lowell that he went to work for a tobacco company for the money and benefits, and hoped that he could do some good through research. His confidentiality agreement doesn’t allow him to talk any further about his work. Lowell succinctly says that Jeffrey is in a state of conflict, caught between wanting to expose the truth and protecting his family’s economic well-being.
Lowell consults with his staff, including Wallace. The legal advice is that big tobacco never lost a lawsuit. They have tremendous resources, and can tie up the litigation for an extended period of time, causing the opponent to be drained financially. Their defense is the “We didn’t know argument,” which states that if they provide a product which turns out to be harmful, and people choose to use it, the effects are their responsibility. But, Jeffrey knows that the tobacco companies did know that nicotine is addictive, and chemically enhanced its addictive properties, making it extremely difficult for people to exercise free will and stop smoking. Lowell realizes that Jeffrey’s information, because he was a corporate vice-president and noted scientist, would be a crippling blow to the tobacco industry.
Jeffrey becomes a public school science teacher. He tells his students, “I find chemistry to be magical. I find it an adventure, an exploration into the physical building blocks of our universe.” He has transitioned into a job which pays a great deal less than what he used to earn, but which allows him to enjoy his profession. And, he is now working on behalf of the public sector, not to its detriment, inspiring young people with his love of knowledge. He tells his wife that maybe, even though they had to move to a downsized house, this change can be for the better, because he will be able to spend more time with the family. But, his decision to not sign the new confidentiality agreement leaves him open to threats. He is alone as the last person at a golf driving range, when a large man shows up in a suit, hits a few balls before closing, and stares threateningly at Jeffrey. Jeffrey finds footprints in his newly planted garden which shows he is being observed. Also, the destruction of the plants implies that he can’t feel secure enough to put down roots in his new life. His wife receives threatening emails, and Jeffrey finds a bullet in his mailbox. It matches the caliber of one of his guns, and the FBI men who show up are intimidating, implying that Jeffrey, being agitated, may be trying to incriminate his former employer. They also confiscate his computer without even asking permission.
Lowell tries to help Jeffrey as the conspiracy seems to widen against the former tobacco scientist. He calls a contact at the FBI, questioning the way the two agents acted, implying that maybe they may be seeking security jobs with the tobacco companies, or might know people in those jobs, and could have been persuaded to menace the Wigands. Lowell says to his Federal agent friend, “I’m getting two things; pissed off and curious.” His statement carries the threat of how a free press can put fear into questionable activities by threatening to expose them. He also gets private guards to protect the family. However, this need for security further distances Jeffrey and his family as it establishes a barrier between them and the world outside.
Jeffrey admits that he does not like to get pushed around, and after the threats to himself and his family, he tells Lowell he wants to be interviewed. However, when they meet for dinner, he questions Lowell’s sincerity. He says, “I’m just a commodity to you.” Lowell says maybe to the network he is, but to Lowell, he is “important.” Jeffrey wonders if any good will come from his information. He says maybe people watch Lowell’s show because it’s “something to do on Sunday night.” He says maybe what he has to say won’t change a thing, while his family will be “left out to dry, used up, broke, alone.” Jeffrey says all Lowell is putting out there are words. Lowell counters by telling him nobody is making Jeffrey speak out. Lowell tells him not to evade his responsibility by questioning Lowell’s motives. Lowell says he has been putting his reputation on the line publicly, and backing up his words with action, getting stories to inform the people. This back-and-forth exchange highlights the courage needed to open oneself up to attack in order to fight for what’s right.
Lowell wants to work around the confidentiality clause by having Jeffrey compelled to testify in a lawsuit that the state of Mississippi is bringing against the tobacco industry. In the meantime, he and Mike Wallace record the interview for 60 Minutes. Jeffrey says that the CEO’s of the tobacco companies perjured themselves in front of Congress when they said they did not believe nicotine was addictive. As an insider scientist, he knows that they used ammonia to produce “impact boosting,” to cause the nicotine “to be more rapidly absorbed in the lung and therefore affect the brain and nervous system.” Jeffrey says that the tobacco industry inside their doors said they were in “the nicotine delivery business,” so that a smoker would get his or her “fix.” Jeffrey specifically rejected being involved with using a drug that was a flavor-producing additive that was a lung carcinogen, and that is why he was fired.
To illustrate how much influence the tobacco industry has, it pressures a court in Kentucky to put a restraining order against Jeffrey testifying in Mississippi. That state rejected it, but if Jeffrey goes back to Kentucky he could be fined and imprisoned. Jeffrey asks a question that shows how upside-down things have become when he says, “How does one go to jail?’ for telling the truth, and thus endangering his family. After agonizing over what to do, Jeffrey decides to testify anyway. As he rides to the courtroom, Jeffrey passes rows of headstones in a cemetery, possibly reminding us of what is at stake, which represent the lives of numerous individuals that were, and can be, victims of smoking. The disease that tobacco causes becomes a metaphor for a corruption spreading throughout industry and government that threatens the wellbeing of the citizens. However, when he does return to his home, his wife and children have left, his spouse unable to deal with the pressure. As Lowell tells Mike, “These are ordinary people under extraordinary pressure.” In Mississippi, Richard Scruggs (Colm Feore), who is assisting in the prosecution of the tobacco industry, knows what a sacrifice Jeffrey is making. He tells him, “You’re assaulted psychologically. You’re assaulted financially, which is … directed at your kids … You feel your whole family’s future’s compromised. Held hostage.” The soundtrack of the film is a combination of Middle east sounds and jazz. The former adds a mournful, almost sad feel to the film. But both add to a sense of being out of the mainstream of America, which is where Jeffrey finds himself.
Big tobacco then goes after Lowell and CBS, legally. Through a principle called “tortious interference,” they can sue the network for facilitating Jeffrey’s violation of his confidentiality agreement. The CBS lawyer says that the Big Tobacco can sue for enormous sums because “the greater the truth, the greater the damage.” What this implies is that some truths must be concealed if they adversely affect the powerful. The phrase “Too big to fail” comes to mind. Lowell finds out that there is a deal to sell CBS to Westinghouse, and the lawsuit would impair that transaction, and the higher-ups at CBS, including the chief counsel, will suffer financially. So, the tentacles of this financial conspiracy reach into many places. Lowell refuses to shoot an alternative version of Jeffrey’s interview, but Mike Wallace, afraid that Brown and Williamson could wind up owning CBS, cooperates. Wallace records a preface to the severely abridged interview that airs, but CBS even guts that.
So, now, Lowell, like Jeffrey, who has moved into a hotel room, is all alone, professionally, forced to take a mandatory leave of absence. Jeffrey feels that all he gave up is for nothing if CBS won’t air his interview. However, Lowell works to invalidate smear campaigns against Jeffrey concerning false allegations of shop-lifting and failed custody support involving his prior marriage. He covertly leaks information to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, so that information about Jeffrey and Big Tobacco has nothing to do with CBS being involved in breaking his confidentiality agreement. CBS also comes under attack for caving to lawyers and big business, which in a democracy is dangerous because it stunts the free flow of information. As Lowell says to his boss, “Are you a businessman? Or are you a newsman?” With Wallace now on his side, and with, as Lowell says, “The cat completely out of the bag,” CBS airs the complete interview. We see people stopping what they are doing, listening to the program, learning, so that they can make informed decisions. Jeffrey’s daughter looks up with respect at her father as she sees him on the TV, implying that role models are important.
Unfortunately, as Lowell tells Jeffrey, “I’m all out of heroes, man. Guys like you are in short supply.” To which Jeffrey responds, “Yeah, guys like you, too.” In the end, Lowell quits, because his whole assurance of protecting his sources has been compromised by the corporate undermining of the news. He tells Wallace, “What got broken here doesn’t go back together.” He walks out of the building of his employer, and the exit is shown in slow motion, mirroring Jeffrey’s plight at the beginning of the film. Lowell pulls up his coat collar against the unwelcoming cold as an outsider.
Written addendums show that the tobacco companies settled for 246 billion dollars with states that sued them for reimbursement for Medicaid funds paid to smoking victims. Jeffrey Wigand was named teacher of the year in Kentucky. Lowell Bergman taught graduate school journalism at Berkeley, and worked for PBS. The film is a tribute to those who work hard and sacrifice for the good of the many.