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The Explosive Film That Ticked Off '60 Minutes'

By Tom Shales

Friday, October 15, 1999; Page C01

"The Insider" is dynamite. It hasn't even gone off yet and already debris is falling and people are claiming to have been hurt. The fact-based film, which will have its gala Washington premiere Nov. 4 at the Uptown Theatre, has sparked a furious war of words between movie people in Hollywood and broadcast journalists in New York.

Before it's over, this skirmish between celebrities may widen into a war between giant corporate mega-powers--Disney, which made the film, on one side and CBS Inc. on the other, with individuals caught in the crossfire. And that is partly what the movie itself is all about.

Mike Wallace, star correspondent of "60 Minutes," is depressed and saddened by the film and calls it a "betrayal," though he's yet to see it and bases his objections on reading the script. Don Hewitt, creator and executive producer of "60 Minutes," is on the proverbial warpath and, says Wallace, "the closer it comes, the more exercised he's been getting."

They both complain that Michael Mann, the film's director, "refuses" to show them the completed film. "I can't show it to them," Mann says from Hollywood. "And the reason I can't is that at every opportunity they have attacked the picture, attacked me and misrepresented past history. On the day the president of CBS News called to ask me for a screening, the publicist for '60 Minutes' was taking shots at me in the press. It makes no sense to show them the film."

Wallace and Hewitt are worried about the movie because it exhumes a dark, sorry period in the otherwise virtuous life of "60 Minutes." In 1995, the program was to broadcast an interview with Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist and former vice president at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. In the interview, Wigand said that company CEO Thomas E. Sandefur Jr. lied to Congress when he claimed ignorance about the addictive nature of nicotine.

Wigand had been a reluctant whistle-blower, courted and prodded by "60 Minutes" segment producer Lowell Bergman into going public despite considerable risk to Wigand's career and personal life. But at the last minute, CBS News executives, including Hewitt, backed down from airing the interview when a CBS Inc. attorney told them Brown & Williamson could sue the network for billions if it aired.

Humiliated, Wallace went on the air with a weak Big Tobacco story in which Wigand was not identified, his face was obscured and his remarks were heavily censored. Wallace told viewers that CBS Corporate had made the decision. Bergman, infuriated by what seemed shameful cowardice, leaked the story to New York newspapers and finally, nearly three months later, "60 Minutes" viewers saw the Wigand interview that had been withheld. Bergman subsequently left CBS out of disillusionment with the system.

Wallace is upset because he fears the film makes it look as if he didn't fight hard enough to get the original story on the air. Earlier this year, he fired off a series of letters to Mann objecting to portions of an early draft of the script by Eric Roth, whose previous screenplays include "Forrest Gump." Mann's credits include "The Last of the Mohicans," "Heat" and the NBC series "Miami Vice."

One of the ironies of the story is this: In the film, Wallace is portrayed (by dashing actor Christopher Plummer) as being worried to the point of obsession about how the scandal will affect his "legacy" as a journalist and an American icon. Now the real Wallace is similarly obsessed with how the film will affect his legacy and the public's perception of him as courageous and truthful.

When asked about the film, Hewitt tries to laugh it off. "People tell me it's very boring and too long," he says. The film does run a little more than 2 1/2 hours, and film critics will be screening it for the first time this weekend. But this reporter can testify, on the basis of an advance screening in September, that by no means is the movie "very boring." It is riveting and shocking and deeply moving. Pat Kingsley, Mann's publicist, isn't just being a publicist when she predicts it could be one of the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture.

Russell Crowe, who gained 30 pounds to play the role of Wigand, seems a cinch to get a Best Actor nomination. Bergman is played by Al Pacino, another potential nominee. The film really is about Wigand and Bergman more than it's about Wallace or Hewitt. It's the story of one man confronting awesome corporate forces and seeing his life all but destroyed for daring to come forward and tell the truth.

Bergman's character, who is seen encouraging Wigand to go public, reassuring him and earning his trust, is enraged when the report doesn't air. As his ordeal goes on, Wigand's career collapses, his wife leaves him and he literally fears for his life. A message on his computer flashes: "WE WILL KILL YOU."

Hewitt is making quite a tremendous fuss about the film, considering that he doesn't think it will do well at the box office. "The public doesn't know what 'tortious interference' is," he scoffs. "They think it's something from a football game." Actually, "tortious interference" was the basis for the specious legal argument made by CBS lawyers who warned against airing the piece. Wigand had signed an agreement with Brown & Williamson not to discuss company business if he left the firm. But a state attorney general in the South found ways around that gag order by getting some of Wigand's testimony into court records.

"This was a corporate blunder," Hewitt says of the decision not to air the report as scheduled. "Nobody here at '60 Minutes' was in agreement with the corporation. Short of a bunch of guerrillas with guns taking over the CBS transmitters, there was no way for us to put it on the air the first time. CBS owns the means of getting that story to the public."

Not only that, but CBS Inc. was in play at the time, hoping to be sold to Westinghouse, and the corporate lawyers, some of whom stood to gain financially from the sale, didn't want anything to endanger the deal. Then there was a precedent to wrestle with: In June of 1995, ABC settled a $10 billion libel suit filed by the Philip Morris Cos. rather than go to trial in a Richmond courtroom and very possibly lose the case. ABC apologized for a report about Big Tobacco, and that made ABC News insiders furious.

If Brown & Williamson had sued CBS, the case would have been tried in the tobacco-growing state of Kentucky, and merely filing for an appeal if the jury found for Brown & Williamson could have cost CBS $1 billion.

The Hewitt-Wallace attack on the film gets personal. And ugly. They both accuse Bergman of negotiating with Mann to do a movie about the case while it was still going on. They say Bergman was frequently on the phone with Mann and took copious notes during all the meetings inside CBS. From North Carolina, where he is working on a documentary for the PBS "Frontline" series, Bergman says the Wallace-Hewitt version is a lie.

"I had met Michael, and he was one of many people I spoke to for guidance during the crisis," Bergman says. "But the movie idea didn't happen until January of 1996." Bergman says he wanted out of CBS and called another friend, Disney executive Susan Lyne (coincidentally or not the wife of another "60 Minutes" producer, George Crile), about getting a job as a consultant. Bergman thought there were many stories he'd worked on at "60 Minutes" that might be the basis for movies. But "Susan and George both said to me, 'The real movie here is what's going on at "60 Minutes," ' " Bergman says.

"Am I on speaking terms with Lowell Bergman? Not anymore," says Wallace. "In February, he came to my apartment asking for my help in getting a job on '60 Minutes II.' " Wallace says he was flabbergasted that Bergman would request such a favor with the movie in pre-production. "Lowell went to Mike's apartment to see about getting a job here," Hewitt also says. "Here he is [urinating] all over CBS in a movie and trying very hard to get back here."

"That is nonsense," says Mann in Bergman's defense.

Bergman, who worked at CBS News from 1983 through '96, insists it's not true, or even close. "These allegations are fantasies they're having," Bergman says. "I feel sad for them that they have to make things up." In addition to working as an independent documentary producer, Bergman writes for the New York Times and teaches at the University of California at Berkeley.

Wallace's many letters had to do with what he considered factual inaccuracies in the film. Some lines were changed, Mann says, insisting that he based his changes on consultations with Bergman. "I made no changes because Mike requested them," Mann says flatly.

Some of these changes have already been reported. In the first scene of the original script, Bergman (Pacino) is in Iran setting up a difficult interview with some nutty Iranian official. Wallace, scheduled to fly in and do the interview, calls Bergman from New York and asks whether the hotel is luxurious and whether its bathrooms have Jacuzzis.

All the feuding parties agree on one thing: This never happened. The line about Jacuzzis is not in the finished film. "Lowell said Mike would never ask that kind of thing," Mann says. "Mike is not that concerned about creature comforts."

One line that remains in the movie will probably get a big laugh even from the people who might be offended by it--employees of National Public Radio. Late in the film, worried about his legacy and even about getting fired if he fights too hard to air the Wigand interview, Wallace (Plummer) bellows, "I don't plan to spend the end of my days wandering in the wilderness of National Public Radio!"

That's actually a change. Mann says the original line was "I'm not going to spend the end of my days wandering in the wilderness like Walter Cronkite!"

In dredging up ammunition to use against the film, it was inevitable that someone at CBS point out that "Insider" is being released by Disney, which in turn owns ABC, home of ABC News and "20/20," a respected show but hardly in a league with "60 Minutes." Hewitt is not too proud to seize on this line of attack.

"ABC News is in a life-and-death struggle with '60 Minutes,' " Hewitt says. "Who owns ABC News? Disney. Who made the movie? Disney. Who keeps ABC News from doing a story about pedophilia at Disney theme parks? Disney." Asked whether Disney would ever release a movie as critical of "20/20" as "Insider" is of "60 Minutes," Hewitt says, "There is no movie about '20/20.' But if there were, it certainly wouldn't be made by Disney."

Apprised of Hewitt's tirade, ABC corporate vice president Patricia J. Matson said, "This is such a ridiculous notion that I don't think even Don Hewitt believes it."

Mann says there actually once was a line of dialogue in the script about the way ABC News capitulated to Philip Morris: "ABC caved, paid and retracted," someone said. Mann said an ABC executive actually wanted the line left in, partly perhaps to show that Disney movies and ABC News do not interact at all. Mann cut it for continuity reasons, he says, but he promises to put it back in a special TV version of the film he is now editing. The TV version will be longer than the theatrical film because Mann wants it to be a two-night miniseries. Thus it'll run three hours and take up four hours of air time (the rest filled, of course, by commercials).

Might ABC show the film? It depends who offers the most money for the TV rights, Mann says. It doesn't seem likely CBS will be in there bidding.

Although Hewitt's under the impression that his real name is not used in the film, it is. So are many other real names. But one man who escapes that fate is Eric Ober, who was then president of CBS News and who, according to several sources at CBS, was one of the first to give in to the lawyers' recommendations and even wanted to kill the piece altogether. But there's no Eric Ober in the film. He's called Eric Kuster because, Mann explains, a line of dialogue from another person is put in the character's mouth and thus the character becomes a composite. Maybe it's another way not to get sued.

At one memorable point in "The Insider," a CBS lawyer tells the newspeople that if Wigand's charges against Brown & Williamson were untrue, the network would have no problem, or legal liability, in airing them--but the fact that they apparently were true made it impossible. At which point, Pacino as Bergman asks, "Is this 'Alice in Wonderland'?!"

In some aspects, the story of CBS News vs. Michael Mann and "The Insider" has its Alicey aspects too. After all the fur has flown, the last charge leveled and denied, and the film finally opens and is seen by an audience, even Wallace and Hewitt may soften in their virulent opposition.

After all, the big sticking point to Wallace is not going to be a major topic of discussion for the general audience: At what point did Wallace break with Hewitt and CBS executives and decide the bowdlerized piece should not have aired and that the original interview should? Wallace says it was a matter of days ("48 to 72 hours") but Bergman says it was a matter of months.

What Wallace will see as the film's most damning moment comes when Bergman appeals to him to fight the good fight and instead, Wallace says tersely, "I'm with Don on this."

In his New York office, Wallace riffles through letters and other documents as he strives to prove his point about the timing of events and what he said when. Finally he takes a deep breath and sums up his feelings:

"I haven't been granted a chance to view 'The Insider,' " Wallace says, slowly and softly. "But if what I hear from others who have seen it is accurate, it simply does not reflect the truth of what happened here at '60 Minutes.' Everyone at CBS Incorporated and CBS News knew that I insisted--after a 48-hour mistake--on broadcasting the original piece. And to suggest that I lost my moral compass only to find it again under the tutelage of Lowell Bergman is asinine.

"He knows it, Mr. Mann knows it. But the deception helps the drama. I don't like being used in the fashion with which they are using me."

The good news for Mike Wallace may turn out to be that his legacy is far more secure than he thinks it is. He is a giant figure in the history of network news. Mann says what his movie is about is that beneath the clash of corporations and the legal battling, human beings were involved, with their fates and fortunes at stake. "All humans are flawed," he says, and he made a concerted effort not to mythologize Wigand, showing him to have imperfections and to have made foolish decisions.

That humans are prone to error shouldn't be a very controversial stance to take. Maybe what Hewitt and Wallace are doing is further proof, because with all their vociferous objecting, they could help turn a movie that's commercially iffy into a smash hit. Whether or not it plays in Peoria, "The Insider" is likely to be the most talked-about movie in media circles since "All the President's Men."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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