Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 52 min.
Our content ratings(0-10): Violence 2; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (0-5): 4
Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work…
Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 3:16-17; 4:1-3
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
All the Presidents Men; Cry Freedom; Good Night, and Good Luck; Salvador—I love these films about journalistic crusaders for truth and freedom. Then comes director Michael Cuesta’s Kill the Messenger, based on Peter Landesman’s screenplay, adapted from Nick Schou’s book Kill the Messenger and journalist Gary Webb’s own newspaper series “Dark Alliance.” Webb is the central character of a movie that is more like Veronica Guerin than any of the first mentioned films. The journalists in the four films first mentioned succeeded in their noble tasks, earning widespread plaudits for their skill and courage. Not so the Irish investigative reporter Veronica Guerin and the Californian Gary Webb. The famous saying used as the title of this new film applies to them both—literally in Ms. Guerin’s case when she was gun downed by the gangsters she was exposing, and metaphorically for Gary Webb, when the CIA and compliant news agencies questioned Webb’s journalistic integrity. It was his professional reputation that was killed not his physical life, though that too…well let’s leave that for you to find out.
If the title wasn’t enough to warn us of tough times ahead for Gary Webb, then the series of newsreel clips that accompany the front titles and credits should—grainy shots of Pres. Nixon declaring war on drugs, followed by clips of Ford, Carter, and Reagan reaffirming that war; then scenes of arrests, piles of bagged drugs and an equally high pile of money seized during a raid. And as the so-called war dragged on, so too did the news of the spread of drug use throughout the country. Webb (Jeremy Renner) is working as an investigative reporter at the San Jose Mercury News in the mid-1990s when he writes an article about the DIA seizing the property and assets of alleged drug dealers even before they are convicted. Believing in the Constitution, he is bothered by this denial of “due process”—and, he notes, even when a defendant was acquitted, he did not get back the seized property.
As a result of his article a flirtatious mistress of Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez), a defendant gives him a confidential court file. Blandon had been a Nicaraguan trafficker working with the DEA in a campaign to bring down a bigger dealer, Ricky Ross (Michael K. Williams). This sends Webb on a series of journeys to interview a prisoner, his banker, and officials—in Managua; Washington, D.C.; and South Central L.A. Despite the warning of an official in D.C. that he back away from the story because of the danger, in 1996 he goes ahead and writes the three-part series “Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion,” charging that Nicaraguan Contras (supported by the CIA to overthrow that country’s Sandinista government) were bankrolled by the traffickers whose cocaine had been flooding into the cities of America. This was part of the complicated infamous scheme masterminded by Col. Oliver North to get around Congress’s refusal to fund the Contras’ expensive operations. If funds could not be obtained legally, then the CIA would be secured from other sources.
The national news establishment lauds Webb at first, and a huge political upheaval takes place. Representative Maxine Waters of California angrily demands an investigation into the C.I.A. to see if it contributed to creating the crack epidemic in the black section of Los Angeles. Webb receives invitations to appear on such prestigious programs as “Sixty Minutes,” and is named the outstanding journalist of the year. However, the film suggests that jealousy among reporters working for more prestigious news outlets, such as the L.A. Times and the Washington Post, resentful that they had been scooped, was a part of a strong blowback. The Times, for example, assigns 17 reporters to check into the story: talk about the use of expensive resources! Both papers contact their CIA connections, who, of course, deny the story. Apparently the agency mounted a campaign to discredit Webb by going to his sources and making them recant their testimony. The drug kingpin Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia) whom Webb had visited in prison denies he ever met with the reporter, and the banker who had taken Webb to a jungle site once used by the drug cartel in Managua disappears after being snatched off the street. Webb’s critics also use distortion in their attacks, stating that he made claims that actually were not in the article, this tactic thus casting doubt on his judgment. Now it is the reporter, and not his story that is the story.
Webb’s own editorial board at The Mercury, headed by Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and publisher Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt), become worried and suspicious about his use of sources. Worst of all, mistrust is created in their minds when news of why he moved from the Midwest to California is leaked. This leak renews the tension at home with his long-suffering wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt) as well as to the disillusionment of his teenaged son Ian (Lucas Hedges)–Webb had engaged in an affair with a female reporter that ended with her suicide. Packing his bags and boxes of materials, he moves to a motel where he covers the walls of his room with photos and notes designed to help him see all of the connections of the complicated story.
Actor Jeremy Renner, supported by an excellent cast, is terrific as the motorcycling father whose work begins to swallow him up. Doggedly running down and persuading his sources to reveal their secrets, he is more successful as a reporter than as a husband and father. We might question his decision to sacrifice his family and personal life for the sake of his story—and yet there is no doubt that if his story was correct in its essentials, the Iran Contra Scandal during Pres. Reagan’s tenure was far worse than we realized at the time. If we can compare the truth telling task of the journalist to that of following Christ and practicing what he taught, then Gary Webb certainly rose to the challenge of Mark 8:34.
The filmmakers try to put as good a face on his public disgrace as they can in the sequence in which Webb reunites with his family to go to the ceremony in which he receives his “Best Journalist Award.” (Apparently once announced, this cannot be rescinded, despite his repudiation by fellow journalists.) When his name is called and he goes forward, almost no one applauds except his wife and son. He accepts the award, and overcome with emotion, utters just a few lines before he rejoins his family at the Mercury’s table. Dropping his note of resignation in front of the publisher, he leaves with Sue and Ian. Outside, Ian, who had earlier expressed his disappointment in his dad over disloyalty to his mother, now tells him how proud he is of him. A smiling Sue looks on. Gary Webb’s story, too complicated to be fully told by a two-hour film, would have made a good cable or TV mini-series which would have had the time to fill in many of the gaps in the story. Until that unlikely happening, this film is well worth seeing—and if the mini-series were ever to come about, the producers had better use Jeremy Renne.He has made the role of Gary Webb his own, every bit as inseparable as Clark Gable and Rhett Butler.
This review with a set of discussion questions will appear in the Nov. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.When journalist Gary Webb writes a story about the CIA using drug lords selling cocaine so it can fund the Contras, a smear campaign ruins his reputation & his family life.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.