An Incomplete Investigation
Gary Webb’s Story Gets Short Shrift
Investigative journalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It never was. “Big scandal” stories like the one broken by real-life San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, about the CIA’s funding of the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. on a massive scale, fell mostly on deaf ears when Webb’s powerful series of “Dark Alliance” of exposé articles appeared in 1996. Only outraged local communities in Los Angeles took direct action. Black community groups demanded answers for the CIA-enabled drug conspiracy that decimated their neighborhoods. Of course, by then most or all guilty members of the Reagan administration — including old Ronnie himself — were happily retired and living off the fat of the land, beyond the law. Authoritarian lip service was paid, nothing more.
Webb’s explosive reporting on the government’s hypocritical actions related to “smuggling tons of cocaine into the United States” came under attack from all sides. Petty jealousy and calculated indolence on the part of big newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post hung Webb and his findings out to dry. Rather than assigning their own journalists to follow up on Webb’s incendiary reporting, American media attacked the man who put his own ass on the line. No big-paper editor wanted to concede that a reporter from a relatively insignificant paper like the San Jose Mercury could scoop them on a story containing earth-shattering revelations.
As is shown in the movie, the Washington Post adopted a government-puppet stance dedicated to discrediting Webb’s reporting rather than seeking to verify his findings. That the film doesn’t bother with the finer points of Webb’s journalism is a problem.
Director Michael Cuesta sets the table with archive television footage of U.S. Presidents, from Nixon through Reagan, condemning drugs. Even former First Lady Nancy Reagan gets screentime for her notoriously insipid “Just Say No” drug campaign. We are hooked.
The ever-redoubtable Jeremy Renner plays the newspaper reporter and family man Gary Webb with detailed attention to the athletic physicality and fearless attitude that street journalists typically possess. Renner’s portrayal is the best thing the movie has going for it, aside from its civilian espionage aspect. The flirtatious girlfriend of an indicted drug lord supplies Webb with a confidential file that points to the inveterate seizure of suspected drug traffickers’ property by the DEA. The partially redacted grand jury transcript relates to Nicaraguan drug lord Danilo Blandon and his links to the Contras and to the CIA. Webb takes the bait and travels to Nicaragua for some on-the-ground research.
Although competently directed, “Kill the Messenger” hopscotches through aspects of Webb’s professional and private life without sufficiently fleshing out either. It’s impossible to know by screening the film whether the screenwriting or editing is to blame, but many crucial elements go missing.
Questions lurk about the fact-checking support of Webb’s two-faced Mercury News editor Anna Simons (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead). More to the point are the alleged holes in Webb’s reporting that the CIA and media outlets seize upon to discredit him and his articles.
“Kill the Messenger” is a frustrating movie. It fails both as a brief biopic and as a political thriller. It works somewhat as a sketch character study, but that’s not enough to satisfy a movie audience.
At a time in history when investigative journalism has been marginalized so much that hardly anyone notices or cares, tragic stories like Gary Webb’s only support the sad reality that America’s police state spooks have won, and will continue to win with a fog of propaganda and some well-placed bullets. The movie does however remind us how amazing it is that heroic whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are still fighting the good fight. Some messengers live longer than others.
Rated R. 112 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)