Hollywood, by which I mean the mainstream American film industry, generally tries to avoid political controversy in its films these days. So I was surprised to learn that Jeremy Renner had decided to produce and star in a film about journalist Gary Webb, whose investigations in the late 90s into a secret Reagan-era government connection with Latin American drug cartels created a great deal of controversy indeed. The film is called Kill the Messenger, and it succeeds in bringing a painful episode in our history to vivid life, which is quite an achievement.
As the movie opens, Gary Webb, played by Jeremy Renner, is a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, who receives a chance tip from the wife of a drug dealer who is on trial in San Francisco. It turns out that a major player in the Latin American drug trade is in fact a witness for the prosecution in this trial, and Webb later helps a defense lawyer force the revelation from this witness in open court that he was in the employment of the CIA.
The picture is directed by Michael Cuesta, who brings nervous energy and skillful suspense to this first part in which Webb painstakingly unravels the truth of what is a very complex story. In a journey that eventually takes Webb to Nicaragua, he discovers that the Reagan administration was determined to fund the contras, the anticommunist forces, despite the fact that Congress had outlawed any such funding. The solution was to partner up with cocaine smugglers, providing air transport for the drugs to America, after which the millions in profits from their sale purchased weapons for the contras that were then transported back to Nicaragua in the same airplanes.
This story, implicating the U.S. government not only in illegal arms sales but in complicity with the rise of crack cocaine that decimated the inner cities in the 1980s, appeared on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News, a minor league newspaper not normally in the business of scooping such titans as the New York Times and Washington Post. The second part of the film dramatizes the tragic result. The CIA went into full damage control mode, which was to be expected, but what was really shameful was how the Times, the Post, and the broadcast media turned on Gary Webb and initiated a campaign to discredit his reporting, basically doing the CIA’s work for them.
Renner is excellent at portraying the hard-working, idealistic reporter, who nevertheless starts to buckle and become unstrung under the huge pressure from the forces ranged against him. Also compelling is Oliver Platt as Webb’s chief editor, who finds himself way over his head and short on courage. Andy Garcia appears in an amusing bit as a sly former big shot doing time in a Nicaraguan prison.
The film becomes a story about the death of journalism—how the news establishment’s proximity to power corrupts its judgment and distorts the truth in order to maintain its privileged access. All subsequent investigations, and the CIA’s own public admissions, have vindicated Webb’s reporting. He died suspiciously in 2004, and until now his story has not been widely known. Thanks to Jeremy Renner, Michael Cuesta, and the other filmmakers behind Kill the Messenger, that at least has changed.