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A Filtered Look at a Tobacco Row

Michael Mann's project about corporate power, the smoking wars and the '60 Minutes' controversy takes some creative liberties to tell its historical tale.

November 29, 1998|MYRON LEVIN | Myron Levin is a Times staff writer who covers the tobacco industry

PASCAGOULA, Miss. — When actor Russell Crowe, made into a dead ringer for tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, enters the courtroom, think of the air going out of a balloon. Paper airplanes are grounded and punch lines are left dangling as a hush falls over the crowd of make-believe tobacco lawyers. "You've all got to look at the door," instructs director Michael Mann, "because bad news just walked in."

Hollywood had come to Mississippi's Gulf Coast to re-create Wigand's explosive testimony in 1995 that unleashed a media tsunami and built momentum for the immense legal assault on Big Tobacco.

The film, known for now as "The Untitled Tobacco Project" for Disney's Touchstone Pictures, recounts the exploits of Wigand and CBS News producer Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino), and the fiasco at "60 Minutes" when CBS lawyers, fearing a major lawsuit, had a Wigand interview pulled from the broadcast. Other film locations included New York; Louisville, Ky.; Berkeley; Israel; and the Bahamas.

Fittingly, the film will arrive in theaters in 1999, the end of the cigarette century--a period marked by astounding medical advances and, paradoxically, the growth of a virtually unknown disease, lung cancer, on an epidemic scale. However, America's tobacco wars serve mainly as backdrop for a story of the volatile alliance of two men doing battle against corporate power.

Although still a work-in-progress, the script and selected scenes suggest what audiences can probably expect: a highly charged psychological drama that packs a powerful punch. At moments, the brooding atmospherics reach an almost operatic, even melodramatic, intensity.

The script seeks authenticity in many details, and in the broad strokes appears faithful to the Wigand saga. But it alters the true sequence of some events and embellishes or fictionalizes other scenes and conversations. And long before release, the old debate over dramatic license with real historical characters and events has been resurrected by "60 Minutes" star Mike Wallace (played by Christopher Plummer), who is not thrilled about the way he is portrayed.

The film picks up the story in 1993, when Wigand, a $300,000-a-year vice president for research and development at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., was fired--ostensibly for being hard for colleagues to work with. Threatened with the loss of a generous severance package--including insurance coverage for an ailing daughter--Wigand pledged in a pair of confidentiality agreements not to disclose any aspect of his work at B&W.

About a year later, he was contacted by Bergman, the veteran "60 Minutes" producer. On and off over the next 18 months, they ruminated over how to bring Wigand's story to "60 Minutes"--including Wigand's claim that B&W's chief executive, the late Thomas Sandefur, had lied in testimony before Congress about the addictiveness of nicotine.

The secrecy agreement was not the only complication. A tangle of huge business deals also lurked in the shadows in the fall of '95 as Bergman prepared the Wigand piece. As CBS was grimly aware, rival ABC had just eaten crow in a fight with Big Tobacco--issuing an apology and paying Philip Morris $16 million in legal fees to settle a suit over an investigative report on the manipulation of nicotine in cigarettes. Many observers thought it was a fight over semantics, and that ABC only surrendered because of its pending mega-merger with Disney.

CBS, too, was in the throes of a multibillion-dollar merger with Westinghouse, which also had no interest in buying a messy lawsuit. Moreover, Lorillard Inc.--the tobacco firm run by Lawrence Tisch and family, who also controlled CBS--at the same time was negotiating with B&W to purchase several cigarette brands.

Against this backdrop of conflicting interests, CBS lawyers succeeded in putting the clamps on the Wigand interview, warning of a possible lawsuit for "tortious interference" with Wigand's contractual obligations, a suit that would be tried in B&W's hometown of Louisville.

The highly publicized cave-in, a major embarrassment for CBS, was a personal disaster for Wigand. Basically, he had been "outed" as a foe of Big Tobacco without the protection or vindication that going public might have brought. Indeed, B&W went after Wigand hammer and tongs, suing him for fraud and breach of contract, and hiring detectives and a public relations firm to expose his marital problems and a minor scrape with the law.

Weeks later, a transcript of Wigand's sealed testimony in Mississippi found its way to the Wall Street Journal, which published a major story. It also ran a lengthy piece on the Wigand smear campaign, including a dossier on Wigand that it largely debunked. Once the Journal had made it safe, or safer, to run the Wigand interview, CBS finally aired it in February 1996.

Defiant Defector

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