The Insider goes to the #ChemMovieCarnival

Biologists have been moving on in to chemists’ territory for a while now. So I hope no-one minds too much that I’m choosing to celebrate a biochemist of the silver screen as part of my late entry to SeeArrOh’s Chemistry Movie Carnival.

The biochemist is Jeffrey Wigand (Russel Crowe). The movie is the Insider. Dr. Wigand, who has a Ph.D. biochemistry and endocrinology, is the eponymous title character. He was a former medical scientist and executive who went to work in the tobacco industry as a VP of Research. After a few years, he’s so frustrated by his company’s conscious disregard for the health of their customers, that he quits and turns whistleblower, testifying in 1996 in both court and on 60 Minutes about the misdeeds of his former employer.

Dr. Wigand’s testimony is high drama as well as interesting chemistry. I could go on and on about this movie, but its better just to watch. Here are two clips:

Clip 1: The 60 Minutes interview – Nicotine is a drug:

Clip 2: Legal testimony. Coumarin is the straw that broke the camel’s back.

What makes the chemistry in The Insider so cool? It’s a few different things:

  • The biochemist in the story is both (a) the good guy and (b) the main character. We see the ups and downs of his life as he goes through with his decision to blow the whistle, and the toll that this professional decision takes on his family life. We’re way beyond the hackneyed “man-in-a-labcoat spews jargon for a scene or two” trope here.
  • The main character is an inspiration and a role model for scientists everywhere. What if Bengü Sezen was your labmate and you somehow knew she was playing fast-and-loose with the data? Or if Annie Dukhan was your co-worker, and you knew she played fast-and-loose with, well, everything? Would it be the right thing to stand up and say so? What price would you be willing to pay for speaking out?
  • It’s a true story*! Jeffrey Wigand is a real person, who really has a Ph.D., and he did actually blow the whistle against big tobacco. (* I should say “based on” a true story: the movie exaggerates some details — for example, tobacco companies probably did not make any threats or trespasses against Dr. Wigand.)
  • There’s only one lab scene in The Insider, in the very beginning. In it, people are eating cake. In the lab!  Not even this movie can get all the details right.

No movie I’ve seen has a more impactful portrayal of a professional scientist than this one. I hope if I’m ever thrust into a situation like Dr. Wigand’s — that if I come to know of chemical crimes or misdeeds, and no one else is saying anything — then, even if the stakes aren’t as high, even if it’s not a problem on the national scale — then I hope that I can have the courage to speak out and tell the world (or just the person down the hall) what I know. Thank you Dr. Wigand for a being great example and thanks to Russel Crowe for a great portrayal of a fine character.


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