Front Row at the Movies
"Kill the Messenger" Actually Happened
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
"Nobody likes a rat," as the old gangster movies used to teach us. But over time movies came to treat whistleblowers as heroes. Witness "On the Waterfront," "Silkwood," "The Insider," "Michael Clayton," "All the President’s Men," and more recently "The Whistleblower."
Maybe not so much in real life.
Case in point is journalist Gary Webb. While working for the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 he wrote a three-part series known as "Dark Alliance," where he exposed CIA involvement in drug trafficking in the US.
Webb showed that Nicaraguan Contras had smuggled large shipments of crack cocaine into Los Angeles and other American cities to help fund their cause. He charged that members of the Reagan administration helped shield inner-city drug dealers from prosecution, allowing this network to raise money for the Contras (because direct governmental funding was prohibited by the Boland Amendment).
Turns out, Webb’s reporting drew a lot of criticism, especially by the rival Los Angeles Times. In an unprecedented tripartite assault, the L.A. Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post launched teams of reporters to explore every perceived flaw in Webb’s story. Even his own newspaper backed away from him.
An internal CIA memo cited this smear campaign as "a ground base of already productive relationships with journalists."
Why would these distinguished newspapers play along? Andrew O’Hehir in writing about "The Struggle for the Soul of Journalism" says, "Webb was an outsider from a Nowheresville paper who made the big boys look bad, and who declined to take dictation from government sources." He had to be punished.
Maybe more than you’d expect. After his career as a mainstream-media journalist was all but destroyed, he wound up as a consultant to the California Assembly Speaker’s Office. On December 10, 2004, Gary Webb was found dead from two gunshot wounds to the head. It was ruled a suicide.
Hollywood now remembers him as a hero. A new movie called "Kill the Messenger" stars Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner as the maligned journalist. Presented as a tidy thriller, the movie is currently showing at the Tropic Cinema.
Renner gives a fiery performance, doing all those things crusading reporters are known to do: "…stand up to their editors, scream about ethics, slam down their phones, punch the photocopier, and beaver away for the truth."
The strong supporting cast includes Andy Garcia, Barry Pepper, Rosemary DeWitt, Michael Sheen, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Robert Patrick, and Ray Liotta
Director Michael Cuesta ("Homeland") mixes real news footage with the heavily scripted scenes, giving the film the sense of verisimilitude it deserves.
You have to keep in mind, this isn’t just an edge-of-your-seat popcorn movie -- it really happened. And you know what? Gary Webb did win a Pulitzer Prize for writing his hard-hitting exposé.