Kill the Messenger is just about the saddest movie of the season, particularly for men and women in the news industry. It purports to tell the story behind a bombshell exposé that relatively few people remember now, but at the time (1996) caused major national outrage: The claims by drug dealers and other sources that the US government had something to do with smuggling cocaine into Los Angeles in the 1980s as part of a plan to finance the CIA-supported anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua.
The investigative reporter who set off the blast was Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News (played by Jeremy Renner), a newsroom staffer with a wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), three kids, and, in the movie, the need to turn over a new leaf. As we follow Webb down the rabbit hole, it’s important we keep in mind the filmmakers’ proviso that the film is “based on a true story” — that hobgoblin of screen political thrillers — in this case a book by reporter Nick Schou, adapted by screenwriter Peter Landesman (Parkland), and directed by TV veteran Michael Cuesta.
Webb’s three-part “Dark Alliance” series of articles in the Merc, which began with crack dealers and spiraled into Nicaraguan jungles and federal law enforcement departments in the US, attracts an unholy amount of heat when it is first published — most of it absorbed by Webb, the loneliest man in North America. Renner (American Hustle, The Town, The Hurt Locker), with his weary, weathered face and built-in exasperation, is the ideal actor to portray such a compromised but dogged pursuer of the truth, the messenger whom no one really wants to believe because to do so is to realize that the rottenness in American society is thoroughly ingrained and unstoppable.
We might imagine that Webb’s revelations would prompt angry denials by government officials. But the fiercest attacks on “Dark Alliance” and on Webb himself come from other newspapers. Led by the Los Angeles Times (personified by actor Josh Close as scared-rabbit reporter Rich Kline), a phalanx of heavyweight news orgs publishes stories debunking Webb’s assertions. Are they miffed at the idea that a B-market sheet like the Mercury News has scooped them, or are The New York Times and The Washington Post doing the embarrassed government’s dirty work by discrediting Webb?
Most discouraging of all, Webb’s own editors in San Jose (portrayed by Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead), initially overjoyed at their man’s investigative zeal, soon turn their backs on him, publish retractions, and assign him to a “Siberia” desk in Cupertino. A Central Intelligence asset named John Cullen (Ray Liotta) confesses to Webb that he’s on the right track after all, but by that time it’s too late. Intruders begin harassing Webb and barge into his home looking for his notes (remember they’re in cardboard file boxes, not on hard drives). That’s a good way to drive a reporter crazy. In Syria or Honduras they get decapitated. Here they get shouted down, then ignored, and quickly forgotten. An onscreen title informs us that Gary Webb died in 2004 from two gunshots to the head; the coroner ruled his death a suicide.
The establishment’s personal assault on the messenger notwithstanding, ordinary citizens in African-American communities like South Central are perfectly capable of connecting the Nicaragua-cocaine-CIA-ghetto dots for themselves. The notion that the CIA deliberately started the crack epidemic in black neighborhoods took hold and became an article of faith. That theory and Webb’s original story are both entirely plausible, but so are the complaints about Webb’s sources. The high irony of Kill the Messenger is that nowadays Webb’s tormenters — the Mercury News, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post — are all ghosts, doing business in a ghost industry. And no one cares about Contragate. These days we’re more worried about disease epidemics, global warming, the misbehavior of sports stars, Yelp, and high Bay Area real estate prices. So good luck with the pathetic case of Gary Webb.