How to describe
, the new film from
contender? A smart, tough look at the business of the media? A revelation of the lengths to which the tobacco industry will go to protect its lucrative franchise?
Try a flop.
After three weeks in release,
, which tells the story of a tobacco company scientist who blew the whistle, only to be hung out to dry by
has racked up all of $20 million at the box office. That's less than half of what the
movie pulled in on its first weekend. Barring an Oscar for
, who gives a brilliant performance as Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the
Brown & Williamson
scientist who watches his life crumble after he decides to come forward,
is inexorably headed for the ash heap of film history.
This is more bad news for Disney, though relative to the company's other
recent problems, it's a mere zit. Still, given the agita that the Mouse put itself through for this movie, the lack of interest from audiences must be disappointing. Especially since that
hasn't made Disney any friends at CBS or Brown & Williamson, which are both big enough to hit back.
(Brown & Williamson is making noises about suing Disney for libel, but the real threat comes from CBS.
The New York Observer
reported last week that Disney Chairman
earlier this month called
producer Don Hewitt, who comes off very badly in
, to apologize. Perhaps the top Mousekeeter has a sinking fear of the ultimate nightmare headline: Next, on
: Are Disney's Theme Parks a Haven for Pedophiles?)
The central protagonist of
is Lowell Bergman (played by
), a crusading '60s radical now all grown up as a
producer. Bergman finds Wigand, who's been fired from his B&W job and is slowly drinking himself into oblivion at his Kentucky home, and encourages the scientist to come forward with the truth about cigarettes.
(The irony that Big Tobacco's whistleblower has a bit of a problem with alcohol, America's other favorite legal psychoactive drug, goes unremarked in the movie, though anyone who's ever been in a bar knows that drinking and smoking go together like
When CBS caves to fears of a lawsuit from Brown & Williamson and refuses to air the interview with Wigand, Bergman yells at some people, takes a long, paid vacation and leaks the story to
The New York Times
. Finally, CBS airs the interview and Bergman quits, his honor intact, to work for
With this storyline, the movie's thudding failure to connect will no doubt spark hand-wringing from liberals about America's failure to appreciate serious art, the villainy of Big Tobacco or the corporate takeover of the news. But their tears are misplaced.
, despite striking performances from Crowe, Pacino and
and lots of nice visuals, turns out to have a giant hole at its core.
The film's central conceit, repeated more than once, is that Wigand's testimony about the ways tobacco companies manipulate cigarettes was crucial in "the court of public opinion." Near the end of the movie, when CBS finally runs the interview, Bergman watches it from an airport terminal, not coincidentally a public space. As Wigand speaks, Bergman's fellow passengers focus on the screen, anxious to hear the truth about cigarettes.
Hello? Everyone knows that smoking causes cancer. Everyone knows that nicotine is addictive. And everyone knew those things way back in the dark ages of 1995, when Wigand and CBS did their mating dance. Cigarettes are not a defective product, friends. The
was a defective product. It was supposed to be a car, not a toaster. Cigarettes are supposed to give you a buzz, and they do.
So when Wigand tells the world that cigarettes are a "nicotine delivery system," a clip that is repeated at least four times during
, one can almost hear jaws not drop all over America. No shit, Sherlock. And booze gets you drunk. One doesn't have to be a tobacco farmer to figure that maybe the folks who smoke are doing so because cigarettes are a nicotine delivery system.
With this in mind, the heroic story described in
starts to lose its luster. Did CBS try to evade Wigand's confidentiality agreement with Brown & Williamson (the central reason that CBS's legal department didn't want
to run the interview)? You betcha. The movie makes clear that Bergman arranged for Wigand to be deposed in Mississippi's class-action lawsuit against the cigarette companies expressly so that he could then argue that Wigand's testimony would be in the public record and the confidentiality agreement would be moot.
(The lawyers who represented Mississippi have, of course, made hundreds of millions from the huge settlement between the tobacco companies and the states over
About halfway through the film, before he's decided to break his agreement and testify, Wigand accuses Bergman of using him. Of course not, Bergman replies. What Wigand has to say is important. So important that the state of Mississippi provides a huge police escort for Wigand when he travels to testify, so important that Bergman arranges for personal security for Wigand and his family.
presents the hero of the story as not Wigand, but Bergman. After his moment of truth at the hearing, Wigand essentially fades out of the film, and Bergman's games with his bosses at CBS take center stage. Yet it is Wigand who suffers enormously from Bergman's crusade to air. His family leaves him and he winds up living in a Louisville hotel room where he stares across the street at the Brown & Williamson headquarters.
Wigand, not Bergman, is the guy who had something to lose by challenging Big Tobacco -- and lose he did. Bergman's comparatively safe "heroics" at CBS become the misplaced moral center of the film.
So, after all, Wigand is right; he does serve as a pawn of sorts, providing the expert witness Bergman wanted. But by losing its focus on Wigand, the true hero of the story, to center on Bergman, the film pushes a plot line we've seen too many times before -- the journalist as savior. No wonder audiences have stayed away in droves.