By Alyssa Jaffer
Infamous investigative reporter Lowell Bergman, whose investigation of the tobacco industry in the '90s was dramatized in the motion picture The Insider tells us about his experience and the process of projecting his life's work on the big screen.
That tobacco is bad for you was an open secret known well before 1996. What made cigarettes contentious at the time was that the tobacco manufacturers' recommended use was enough to kill you. In addition, the addictive effects of nicotine were underplayed and for the first time, former President Bill Clinton's administration wanted to separate the federal government from the tobacco industry.
Bergman, a producer for CBS' 60 Minutes at the time, first took interest in the tobacco trade when he received documents stating that cigarettes were the biggest cause of fire in the United States. He needed an expert to verify the conclusion that cigarettes are deadly in more ways than one.
Enter Jeffrey Wigand, former Vice President of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation.
However, getting Wigand to spill it all on the record about whether tobacco executives knew the truth about the addictive qualities of nicotine was no easy feat. Bergman describes his series of faxes sent to Wigand's home, including one with pictograms to communicate that Bergman wanted Wigand to call him. Wigand's children accidentally took those faxes to school with them.
Eventually, Wigand agreed to a video interview in August of 1995, but with the many conflicts of interest between the network and tobacco industry, the story was squashed even before it aired -- a detail that was depicted accurately in the film, according to Bergman. "If you want to learn the ins and outs, go watch the movie," he said.
At this point, Bergman wanted to leave CBS because he no longer trusted his supervisors, but he was locked into a contract. "What bothered me was that I couldn't tell the story of what happened inside CBS ... and a motion picture was the way to do it," Bergman said.
So Hollywood came to the rescue.
Director Michael Mann was a college friend of Bergman's and had wanted to make a film about Bergman's work. Mann explained that the story is not about arms or drugs, but about what is happening to Bergman himself. Despite some chronological errors in The Insider, the film does capture the essence of the experience.
"Eric Roth is a brilliant screenwriter, because he can explain all this better than I can sitting here."
The Insider is screening tonight at 8:30 as part of the San Francisco Film Festival at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. Tickets are $25.