Gary Webb was an American investigative reporter best known for a series of 1996 articles that detailed CIA involvement in cocaine trafficking into the US. He worked for the San Jose Mercury News, a small newspaper that gained significant notoriety that year when he alleged that drug traffickers in Nicaragua had sold and distributed crack cocaine in Los Angeles during the 1980s, and that drug profits were regulated to fund the CIA-supported Contras. He never asserted that the CIA was actively directing the drug dealers, but rather that they were aware the money was being raised and managed to subsidize them.
The resulting fallout was major. This chronicle suggests that the larger papers were embarrassed that they had been scooped on such a significant news story by a much smaller paper: The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times tried to debunk the link between the Contras and the crack epidemic to discredit Webb. The account also suggest the CIA applied pressure on Webb and his family to remain silent. Webb’s key sources then disappeared mysteriously. Others later contended that Webb had lied about what they had said to him. The San Jose Mercury News backed away from the story, then threw him under the bus.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Kill the Messenger turns Gary Webb into a hero. He is presented as a crusader for accountability that divulged a reality that was too hot to handle. As a reporter he had uncovered what he believed to be unequivocal evidence linking the illegal business of crack cocaine in the U.S to the money used to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. He simply wanted to unveil that truth. It should be noted that there are still some who contend that Gary Webb was a disgraced journalist. However they will not find that point of view here. Peter Landesman’s script is adapted from Gary Webb’s own 1999 book Dark Alliance and Nick Schou’s 2006 book Kill the Messenger. His screenplay critically indicts both the U.S. government as well as the news correspondents of the day. The competing papers launched a smear campaign against him ultimately ending his career. They do not come out good here and your outrage will rest on how those revelations surprise you.
Kill the Messenger is an interesting tale in two parts. The first half recounts Webb’s discovering the evidence. The second half depicts the aftermath of that story. What makes this so watchable is Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of newspaper reporter Gary Webb. He is really good at getting the audience to like him. We feel the unbearable tension that our hero endures as he is threatened directly and indirectly. The impending sense of doom never seems very far way. We share in his growing fear for his own safety amidst his desire to expose the truth. The best scenes concern him and his family. In particular Rosemarie DeWitt as his wife and Lucas Hedges as his son, provide another facet that gives Gary Webb more depth. They imbue his character with flaws that are somewhat unexpected. After all, we have seen this before. All the President’s Men is an example of the crusading journalist railing against the system. The difference however is where Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were celebrated as heroes at the time, Gary Webb was given a much different reception.