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Justice delayed: "Kill the Messenger" vindicates Gary Webb


Jeremy Renner stars as the heroic, blackballed journalist Gary Webb


Kill The Messenger” is a movie about high-stakes, shoe leather journalism. 

In July of 1995, Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner)—a Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News—received a tip from Coral Baca, the girlfriend of Rafael Cornejo, who was being charged in a federal narcotics case. 

During the San Diego trial, Webb discovered that Danilo Blandón (a Nicaraguan citizen and DEA informant who was testifying against Cornejo) had been involved in the sale of up to $6 million worth of cocaine per week to Ricky Ross—a major dealer in Compton during the ’80s. Some portion of the proceeds had been used to support the Contras, a CIA proxy army which had attempted to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. 

Under cross-examination Blandón admitted that members of the CIA were aware that he was dealing drugs, launching Webb on a life-altering journey. 

“Kill the Messenger,” based on a true story, moves with Webb as he follows this initial lead through the mean streets of Compton, a remote airstrip in Honduras, a dingy prison in Nicaragua, and miles of microfiche. This journey is sprinkled with depth of field shots (of potentially sinister people following Webb) and shaky camera footage which amplifies dicey situations, but generally the visual language is subtle and understated, as one would expect of a $5 million movie. “Kill the Messenger” is a small movie about big things. 

Webb’s year of extensive traveling and dogged research was channeled into the "Dark Alliance" articles
which were published in print and online in August of 1996 by the San Jose Mercury News

The three-day series not only pointed out that officials in the CIA and the Reagan Administration had looked the other way while members of the Contras sold cocaine in the U.S., but claimed that the Blandón-Ross connection had been the first large-scale drug pipeline of its kind and had played a central role in the crack epidemic which—along with the punitiveracially-biased policies of Reagan’s War on Drugs—had decimated inner city populations. 

In the beginning, the explosive allegations were a boon to the Mercury News. “Dark Alliance” was the first blockbuster series of its kind to go around the major media filters—the networks and the big newspapers—through the Internet. To bolster the series’ controversial claims, ample links to the sourcing (audio files, court transcripts, government reports, and other legal documents) were included on the Mercury News website. The story went viral, getting up to 1.3 million hits and generating outrage in the African-American community. Webb was a conquering hero around the newsroom, David slaying Goliath.

Webb taking notes at Rafael Cornejo's hearing

For most of the movie, this is how Renner portrays Webb: as a fearless, earnest truth-seeker who is obsessed with his work. Webb walks through doorways with swagger, aggressively presses his points home when challenged, and packs heat to protect his family. 

But Goliath turned out to be a sleeping giant. After overlooking CIA connections to drugs for decades and ignoring the "Dark Alliance" story for several weeks, the Big Three (the New York TimesL.A. Times, and Washington Post), all of whom relied heavily on CIA officials for national security reporting, went after Webb and his series. The L.A. Times, a major daily which had been scooped in its own backyard by a second-tier newspaper, was particularly vicious, putting 
together a hit team of 17 people to comb every word of Webb’s articles in a blatant attempt to discredit the series—and Webb himself. 

In time, even as Webb was strengthening the claims made in his original series with additional research and interviews—evidence which his newspaper never published—the Mercury News’ corporate heads got weak in the knees from pressure exerted by the CIA and its media allies. Webb, who won Journalist of the Year from the Bay Area Society of 
Professional Journalists at the end of 1996, was demoted just months later to a satellite office in Cupertino, 150 miles away from his family. The Mighty Wurlitzer—the ability of the CIA to program the U.S. media like a player piano—remained undeterred. 

Broken down, humiliated, and blacklisted in his chosen profession, Gary Webb committed suicide in 2004.

“Kill the Messenger” is effective at conveying these main facts, but the number of important things which are left out reflect the limitations of the biopic genre to tackle complicated historical events.

As shown by the findings of the Iran-Contra investigation, the report of the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations headed by John Kerry, the CIA Inspector General's report of 1998, and the National Security Archive release of Oliver North's diaries, in 2004, there is no question that dozens of Contras sold drugs in the U.S., that members of the CIA and Reagan Administration knew this and ignored it, and that the Reagan Administration fought to hide this information from the public.

What “Kill the Messenger” doesn’t do is probe the more disputable elements in the “Dark Alliance” series in great depth. How accurate was Webb’s speculation on the precise years of Blandón and Ross’s business relationship and the resulting extrapolation of the amount of cocaine that passed between them? What portion of the sales went to the Contras and what portion went back into Blandón’s pocket? Were these transactions—when coupled with Ross’s eventual countrywide expansion—enough to set off the crack explosion, as the series claimed, or were they just one part of a much bigger phenomena? To what extent did Webb’s book (“Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion”), which 
included much more expansive sourcing than the original newspaper story, clear up these questions? 

And Renner’s characterization focuses on Gary Webb the alpha journalist to the exclusion of other dimensions of Webb’s personality. The two times I saw Webb speak at Bay Area journalism events, I witnessed a relaxed demeanor and a sharp sense of humor (often mentioned by family and friends) which are mainly absent in the movie. Webb’s bi-polarity, the struggles with depression which led him to take his own life, also get short shrift. 

Despite these gaps in the storyline, Jeremy Renner and the other principals behind “Kill the Messenger” deserve a public service award for bringing this project to fruition. “Kill the Messenger” is a substantial movie which honors an exceptionally brave journalist who put his livelihood on the line for the public’s right to know. 

Toward the end of the movie, as Webb sits in a ballroom about to receive an award, he hears his name announced. He imagines a standing ovation, only to mount the podium to scattered applause. In a just world, “Kill the Messenger” would be playing in Multiplexes, waking the sleepwalking masses up to hidden histories in their midst. 

As it is, Renner’s labor of love won’t get a fraction of the attention—from the media or the Academy—that have attended other movies about momentous journalism such as “All the President’s Men.” Eighteen years after it was published, the revelations of the “Dark Alliance” series have been completely swept under the rug. While the Woodward-Bernstein takedown of President Nixon was said to prove that “the system works,” the tepid reception of “Kill the Messenger” shows that in the case of the Contra-crack-cocaine story, the system failed.


 *This article originally appeared on "Truth and Beauty"

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