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.
Directed by Michael Mann. The All-Star Cast has a raft of recognizeable actors in supporting roles, like Gina Gershon as a weaselly network executive, Michael Gambon faking a Southern accent as a weaselly tobacco executive, and Bruce McGill with a pretty spectacular One-Scene Wonder appearance as a lawyer who calls Weigand to testify in a lawsuit.
Nominated for seven Oscars, but didn't win any.
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.
- Blindfolded Trip: The movie opens with Bergman being escorted blindfolded to meet a sheikh that Mike Wallace wants to secure an interview with. Bergman's job is to make sure that the sheikh will consent to the interview before arranging Mike's transportation.
- 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: The CEOs of the Big Tobacco companies
- Deadpan Snarker: Bergman is this occasionally.
- Establishing Character Moment: The opening sequence of Bergman arranging and overseeing the production of an interview of a sheikh in Lebanon. First, it establishes Bergman's role as a journalist, which is to scout out the interviewee to make sure they'll consent before Wallace flies out. Once Mike shows up, his refusal to back down when the sheikh's bodyguards try to intimidate him are to show he is a man who will see a story through to the end and won't let others browbeat 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!
- Loophole Abuse: After being told about Big Tobacco's use of the unlimited checkbook to tie up guys like Wigand in litigation, Bergman posits that they might be able to break through the confidentiality agreement legalese by arranging for Wigand to testify about what he knows in open court, so the information he knows is on public record. The CBS in-house counsel note that this tactic is plausible, though they also warn that Wigand should still find counsel willing to foot the bill for the many years of litigation B&W are going to bring against him anyways.
- 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...
- 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.
- The opening sequence of the movie, while fictionalized, reflects Bergman's role in producing the first U.S. television interviews with Lebanon's Hezbollah leadership.
- Skewed Priorities: At one point, Lowell and his assistant are shown looking over B-roll footage for a segment on New Orleans police corruption. Lowell immediately has problems with the cameraman's obsession with mounted police:Lowell: Stringer was supposed to be shooting b-roll on street cops in New Orleans. What's with all the horses?Editor: Camera guy's got a thing for mounted police.Lowell: Don't any of these guys ride in cars or...or walk?
- Smug Smiler: The smug tobacco lawyer who tries to intimidate Weigand into shutting up when Weigand is on the stand in Mississippi. He smirks arrogantly when sparring with Ron Motley in the Mississippi court hearing, leading Motley to issue a deeply satisfying smackdown.Motley: WIPE THAT SMIRK OFF YOUR FACE!
- 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 so. Or at least, have zero reason not to, because they can do it with impunity so long as they're not breaking any other laws.
- Strawman News Media: Type 1
- With or Without You: "We're doing this with or without you, Lowell."
- Wham Line: After Lowell delivers a long, winded speech about journalistic integrity and standing for truth with Mike, Mike himself drops the following line, making Lowell do a Double Take:I'm with Don on thisnote .
- "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.