by Nathan Sacks
On October 8, 1998, only an hour after the House of Representatives voted to impeach Bill Clinton, the Inspector General finally released a second report investigating allegations of the American government buying cocaine from the Nicaraguan contras to fund their illegal war in that country. Whereas previous reports had concluded that there was no evidence linking the CIA and cocaine trafficking, this unredacted version acknowledged at least “six cases” in which “knowledge of allegations or information indicating that persons or individuals had been involved in drug trafficking did not deter their use by the CIA.
Director: Michael Cuesta
Producers: Pamela Abdy, Naomi Despres, Jeremey Renner, Scott Stuber
Writers: Peter Landesman, Gary Webb (book "Dark Alliance"), Nich Schou (book "Kill the Messenger")
Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt
Editor: Brian A. Kates
Music: Nathan Johnson
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Robert Patrick, Jena Sims, Robert Pralgo, Hajji Golightly
US Theatrical Release: October 10, 2014
US Distributor: Focus Features
Of course, the fact that the CIA was selling dope, covertly murdering innocent people, and otherwise acting as the dark unfettered id of the presidential administration it served was nothing new. What was perhaps new was that no mainstream news source seemed interested in telling this story. The Clinton scandal killed any mentions of cocaine and the Contras, and even those who had previously pledged to take the CIA to task, like Rep. Maxine Waters of California, were unable to address the report because of a then-imminent budget crisis. Kill the Messenger is the new movie that dramatizes the efforts of one reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) to tell the truth about this back in 1996. His brave reporting and refusal to back down in the face of incredible pressure eventually led to that report, yet it also destroyed Webb’s life and family in the process. And the most criminal thing was, throughout it all, virtually no one bothered to pay attention.
Kill the Messenger dramatizes a shameful period in American history, and makes the argument that this period is far from over. Though it sounds at first more like an angry jeremiad against the CIA and the Reagan administration, at the end it is more a comment on the state of journalism in this country. Young J-school students might be surprised to learn there was a time when the average journalist was unkempt, unglamorous, unfriendly, and constitutionally incapable of toadying to power.
At the beginning of the story, Webb is a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, a journal with a fraction of the power of the Los Angeles Times and other national newspapers. Webb works the drug dealer beat, which is how he gets a call from Coral Baca (Paz Vega) the beautiful wife of a drug distributor who works with Danilo Blandon, who allegedly sold crack and weapons to the Crips in south central Los Angeles. Webb attends Blandon’s trial and notices something interesting—he is being represented by federal prosecutor Russell Dodson. Webb asks Dodson about the connection, and Dodson panics, and suddenly Blandon is no longer a federal witness.
The more Webb digs into this issue, the more pushback he gets from government spooks claiming “national security.” He travels to LA and meets famous drug dealer “Freeway” Ricky Ross (Michael K. Williams), who partnered with Blandon and had no idea he was a federal cooperator. Then Webb heads down to Nicaragua, meets Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia) in prison, and learns that Oliver North and others were using a secret airstrip owned by the Contras to cart thousands of kilos of cocaine into the United States.
Webb comes home, and before he has even begun to write the story, the threats start. Webb meets Fred Weil (Michael Sheen) in D.C., who tells him that many have already been down this road (including John Kerry, who headed a committee report into the matter in the early 90s) and many have ended up dead trying to pursue this subject. Webb is even invited by the CIA and Russell Dodson himself to negotiate and is more-or-less threatened with murder (one CIA handler tells him, for no particular reason other than to scare him, “We would never hurt your children”).
Yet Webb still doesn’t back down, and writes his story. It is the greatest story of his life, and yet the information is so potent and dangerous it destroys him. The publicity from the article (called “Dark Alliance”) is too much for Webb, who finds himself accused of arguing things he never said. For instance, Webb is accused of believing that the CIA knowingly pumped crack cocaine in south central Los Angeles, which is something his piece never claimed or argued. Webb was also unable to find a CIA source to corroborate his story (obviously) so he was accused by others of resorting to the testimonies of unsavory people like money launderers and drug dealers instead of “legitimate” CIA sources.
Reporters at the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post (where the national security editor was former CIA flack Walter Pincus) started looking for any means to “controversialize” Webb or his story. Eventually they uncover that Webb previously had an affair with a woman in Cleveland who later killed herself. This revelation nearly destroys Webb’s relationship with his son and forces him to leave home and continue working on his story in a hotel.
This is when the most disgusting indignity happens: Webb is sold out by his editor and newspaper. In their defense, they were a small paper that did not have the apparatus of an LA Times or New York Times to defend reporters against a national controversy. But those newspapers were the ones on the front lines, attacking Webb and defending the sanctity of the CIA and the national security apparatus! When Webb’s publisher Jerry Cepos (Oliver Platt) publishes a retraction, it completely ruins the integrity of Webb and the newspaper, and neither can ever fully recover.
Again to be fair, Webb’s editors are not motivated to do this out of malice, but out of a desire to see Webb not get fired. They move him to a different branch and have him file human interest stories, which turns out to be the final indignity. Webb more or less digs his own grave in the final scene of the film, where he receives a journalism award at a fancy banquet. What follows is an immensely satisfying speech, passionately delivered by Renner, who begins explaining what journalism has almost meant to him (“If ever there was a believer, I was one”) and how the people in this room have no business ever calling themselves journalists again. As he walks offstage, he delivers his letter of resignation to Jerry Cepos’ table and walks out with his wife and son, the only people who are still proud of and believe in him.
The film ends there and does not go into the next seven years of Webb’s life, where he was unable to find any more work as a journalist, lost his family, turned to drugs and alcohol, and killed himself (seven years to the day after that speech) under suspicious circumstances (his death was ruled a suicide, though he somehow managed to fire two shots). According to director Michael Cuesta, he deliberately did not want to get into discussions about whether Webb’s death was a murder. I agree, as this level of speculation would be inappropriate for a movie that places so much stock in the cold, hard facts of the case.
Either way, Webb paid far more for his reporting than any journalist ever should. Even after that 1998 report, he was never again allowed to report on national news. Meanwhile, Oliver North continues to be a war correspondent on Fox News. Kill the Messenger is the type of movie that, if you have even the most remote sense of morality, you will come out infuriated at our country and (especially) our media. For that reason alone, this is a vital, important movie that everyone should see.