It tells the true story of Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe), a senior researcher at Brown & Williamson tobacco company. After Wigand is fired from B&W he goes to 60 Minutes and producer Lowell Bergman (Pacino) to spill the secrets he knows about the tobacco industry. Wigand's and Bergman's attempts to reveal the truth about Big Tobacco lead to resistance from B&W and, surprisingly, from their own network.
WIPE THAT TROPE OFF YOUR FACE!:
- Autobiographical Role: Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore (no relation to the filmmaker of the same name) and private investigator Jack Palladino appear as themselves, playing the roles in the story that they played in real life. (Palladino's wife, Sandra Sutherland, did not appear as herself; the character is played by actress Megan Odebash.)
- Based on a True Story: Broadly accurate. Some have suggested Wigand exaggerated his persecution at the hands of Brown & Williamson. The scene with a creepy guy stalking Wigand at a golf range is definitely fictional. Mike Wallace, as noted above, felt that the film lionized Bergman unfairly at his expense. Don Hewitt was also unhappy with his portrayal, but joked that if they'd had Paul Newman playing him, "I would've forgiven them anything." The real Lowell Bergman however claimed that the portrayal of Wallace was largely true to how he acted in real life.
- But Now I Must Go: In a sense. Lowell continues his career as an investigative journalist, but resigns from 60 Minutes because he won't be able to secure sources for CBS now that it is known that they'll betray those sources if enough pressure is applied.What do I tell a source on the next tough story? "Hang in with us. You'll be fine. Maybe." No. What got broken here... doesn't go back together again.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Brown & Williamson CEO Thomas Sandefur, played by Michael Gambon.
- Deadpan Snarker: Bergman is this occasionally.
- Driven to Suicide: It never happened, since the real Wigand is still alive in 2017, but it's heavily implied by the movie that Wigand's thoughts are turning to this towards the end as his life crashes around him.
- Executive Meddling: In-Universe. One of the main themes of the movie is censorship and the tobacco industry's unlimited checkbook. Bergman can't get Wigand's interview aired because of CBS meddling.
- Heroic BSoD: Wigand has a pretty memorable one when the abridged 60 Minutes program airs.
- Bergman has one of his own when he finds out Wallace is siding with the bosses about not airing the story.
- HeelFace Turn: When Wigand and Bergman are getting Screwed by the Network, Mike Wallace is shown trying to take the high road and side with CBS. But then they start manipulating his statements as well.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Wigand takes his confidentiality agreement seriously, and its all but stated that he only broke it because of his former employers' heavy-handed attempts at intimidating him. If they'd just left him alone, he might never have talked.
- Hollywood Nerd: Wigand.
- Honest Corporate Executive: Wigand.
- Intrepid Reporter: Lowell Bergman.
- Irony: A particularly cruel example; the hotel room Wigand is forced to live in as his life collapses all around him is located directly opposite the offices of Brown & Williamson's legal department the very people whose machinations forced him into that hotel room in the first place.Wigand: You manipulated me into where I am now, staring at the Brown and Williamson building! It's all dark except for the tenth floor. That's the legal department — that's where they fuck with my life!
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: CBS higher-ups kill the story when confronted with the mere shadow of a possibility of a lawsuit from Brown & Williamson, and only relent when it becomes impossible for B&W to bring a tort case against them.
- Off the Record
- Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Gambon, playing Brown & Williamson CEO Thomas Sandefur, has a brief slip during the delivery of one line: "It's spooky how he can concentrate!" He sounds English on "spooky" especially, but otherwise maintains a Southern accent, as Sandefur was from Georgia.
- Poor Communication Skills: Brown & Williamson's official excuse for firing Wigand.
- Precision F-Strike: Wigand declaring, "Fuck it. Let's go to court."
Bergman: (to hotel manager) I want you to tell him, in this - in these words: "Get on the fucking phone!"
- Lowell uses one to get him on the phone during Wigand's Heroic BSoD:
Hotel manager: I can't say that.
Bergman: No, you can. Tell him to get on the fucking phone!
Hotel manager: He told me to tell you to "Get on the...fucking phone!"
(Wigand grabs the phone)
- Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: What the CBS lawyers explain to Mike and Lowell is the reason why getting an interview out of Wigand on 60 Minutes will be impossible:John Harris: They don't need the right. They've got the money.
Mark Stern: The unlimited checkbook. That's how Big Tobacco wins every time. On everything. They spend you to death. $600 million a year in outside legal: Chadbourne-Parke. Uh, Ken Starr's firm, Kirkland & Ellis. Listen. GM and Ford, they get nailed after 11 or 12 pick-ups blow up, right? These clowns have never...I mean ever...
John Harris: Not even once.
Mark Stern: ...not even with hundreds of thousands dying each year from an illness related to their product...have ever lost a personal-injury lawsuit. On this case, they'll issue gag orders, sue for breach, anticipatory breach, enjoin him, you, us, his pet dog, the dog's veterinarian - tie him up in litigation for 10 to 15 years. I'm telling you, they bat a thousand every time. He knows that. That's why he's not gonna talk to you...
- The Stool Pigeon: Of the "Whistleblower Wilson" type.
- Particularly notable, as this is one of the last sensationalist cases of a whistleblower before the Whistleblower Protection Act in the US, which prevented retaliation from the company that's being called out. When Wigand points out that B&W is fucking with his life, they are legally entitled to do sonote .
- Shown Their Work: Towards the end of the film, Mike shows Lowell an unflattering article and editorial about CBS in the latest issue of The New York Times. The article and editorial are in different sections of the paper. Usually their editoral/op-ed pieces usually appear in the back of the main news section. The real-life pieces to which this scene refers, were published on a Sunday (November 12, 1995) however, which means that the news and editorials do in fact appear in separate sections.
- Also, the scenes that took place in Pascagoula were filmed at the actual home of Richard Scruggs and the courtroom where the deposition was held.
- Strawman News Media: Type 1
- With or Without You: "We're doing this with or without you, Lowell."
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Cards explain what happened to Wigand and Bergman after the events of the scandal before the credits. They don't document that Wigand's boss Thomas Sandefur died of aplastic anemia on July 14, 1996.