April 13, 2010

"Mad" Avenue Films: "The Insider"


By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

1999: Lowell Bergman was a "60 minutes" producer for Mike Wallace, under Don Hewitt at CBS-TV, for many years. Bergman was attracted to an investigative piece in Vanity Fair by veteran journalist Marie Brenner, the first to break the story on a research scientist at Philip Morris, Jeffrey Wigand, who was assigned by the tobacco company to manipulate nicotine levels to further addict smokers.

Bergman persuaded Wigand to tell his story to Mike Wallace and a "60 Minutes" crew, fully confident that the network would air it. Instead, to Bergman's horror, CBS news management- on the advice of corporate counsel and in the face of rumors of a CBS sale to a major marketer – killed the segment. Briefly, Mike Wallace allegedly supported the decision to suppress the interview.

The New York Times picked up the story and ran it all, then CBS later aired Bergman's original interview. But by then, the producer was ready to pack it in, which he did – moving to the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley, and joining the educational program "Frontline/West" as a teaching fellow and producer.

Director Michael Mann knew this extraordinary true story would make a great movie. Mann also knew Bergman from their undergraduate years together (1965-66) at the University of Wisconsin, and he had directed Al Pacino in "Heat."

"The Insider" is packed with heavyweight talent working at peak potentials – Russell Crowe (Wigand), Pacino (Bergman), Christopher Plummer (Mike Wallace), Philip Baker Hall (Don Hewitt) and Gina Gershon (CBS' head lawyer). The film is fictionalized slightly in sports, but overall it is essentially accurate in its depiction of people, places and events.

It demonstrates how commercial considerations broke the integrity of one of the most honored news teams, and one of the most respected news programs, in the history of the medium. It teaches the timeless lesson that Madison Avenue is just now beginning to absorb: absolute power can corrupt absolutely.

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