Given its Hollywood provenance, I expected very little from “Kill the Messenger”, a film starring Jeremy Renner as reporter Gary Webb, who after exposing the CIA’s role in facilitating Nicaraguan contra planeloads of cocaine into the USA was martyred by forces more powerful than the modest San Jose newspaper where he worked, particularly the CIA and the Washington Post, a “newspaper of record” that had a long history of covering up for the CIA no matter the reputation it earned through the Woodward-Bernstein reporting on Watergate.
Given Renner’s role as an action hero in Katherine Bigelow’s awful “The Hurt Locker” and more recently as a successor to Matt Damon in “The Bourne Legacy”, I fully expected “Kill the Messenger” to figuratively inject steroids into Gary Webb and turn him into a combination of an investigative reporter and superspy. To the contrary, the film is restrained in its presentation of Webb and the forces aligned against him. The real drama is not of the conventional car chase variety but those that take place in the conference room of the San Jose Mercury News as Webb fights to defend his integrity from hostile forces outside the paper and a management all too willing to bend under the pressure.
The film was of particular interest to me since I had spent three years on the board of Tecnica, a volunteer technical aid project for Sandinista Nicaragua, until it succumbed to the same enemies that conspired against Webb: a reactionary presidency abetted by a Democratic Party that shared its ultimate goal—to crush a revolution—while differing only on the rhetoric put forward to achieve that goal. In the late 1980s the Washington Post was all too willing to stump for the contras despite its liberal reputation as Noam Chomsky reported in “Necessary Illusions”:
In April 1986, as the campaign to provide military aid to the contras was heating up, one of the [La Prensa] owners, Jaime Chamorro, wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post calling for aid to “those Nicaraguans who are fighting for democracy” (the standard reference to the U.S. proxy forces). In the weeks preceding the summer congressional votes, “a host of articles by five different La Prensa staff members denounced the Sandinistas in major newspapers throughout the United States,” John Spicer Nichols observes, including a series of Op-Eds signed by La Prensa editors in the Washington Post as they traveled to the United States under the auspices of front organizations of the North contra-funding network.
In fact the reputation of Bob Woodward was inflated to begin with, as I pointed out in a Swans article in 2005:
In 1987, Woodward wrote Veil: the Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, a book that had all the trappings of investigative journalism — especially the title. It was based on the career of William Casey, the CIA director who was a key figure in Reagan’s illegal wars. Although the book was filled with all sorts of lurid revelations (Casey thought Reagan was lazy, the King of Saudi Arabia was a drunk, etc.), it really didn’t get to the heart of why these wars took place and, more importantly, how to stop them.
The book generated some controversy that must have been a painful reminder of the Janet Cooke fiasco. An interview with the dying William Casey, who supposedly “confessed” all his contra-arms dealings to Woodward, was filled with so many inconsistencies and vagueness that the book was widely discredited. In addition, Woodward was accused of withholding important information just as he has done more recently. In Congressional hearings, Lt. Col. Oliver North testified that Casey was in on the diversion of funds from the beginning. If Woodward had Casey’s confession months before North testified, it would have been a major scoop for the Post had he come forward as well as a powerful blow against the illegal conspiracies being hatched during the Reagan presidency. But he held back in order to coincide with the publication date of his book.
Turning to the film itself, it benefited—as all good films do—from a strong screenplay written by Peter Landesman based on Webb’s 1999 “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion”. Landesman was an investigative journalist before he became a screenwriter, including time spent in places like Pakistan and covering matters such the illegal arms trade and sex traffickers. So he knows the territory and brings a verisimilitude to the story that might have been absent if developed by an industry hack straight out of film school. Landesman’s co-writer Nick Schou also has a lot of credibility as the author of “Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Epidemic Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb”, a Nation Magazine book. Schou is the managing editor of Orange County Weekly, a sister publication of the Village Voice that has somehow retained some of the integrity that was present in this alternative weekly’s roots. So, all in all, the creative team behind “Kill the Messenger” are our kinds of people.
The film begins with Webb reporting on the abuse of drug dealer property seizure by California cops, something I am intimately familiar with since my cousin Joel lost the home in upstate New York that he built with his own hands after a police raid on his property uncovered about a hundred marijuana plants he’d grown for his personal use.
On the strength of his reporting, Webb is approached by the girlfriend of a Nicaraguan émigré drug-dealer who wants his help in exposing courtroom irregularities, including the role of his accuser, a big-time dealer who is a DEA informant notwithstanding the millions of dollars he made and continues to make in the drug trade.
With a grand jury transcript that accidentally came into her hands, Webb begins a search in Los Angeles and then proceeds to Nicaragua to uncover the conspiracy that allowed planeloads of cocaine to be exported to the USA in order to raise funds for the contra killing machine.
His articles on the “Dark Alliance” make him a celebrity overnight, earning him appearances on “Nightline” and profiles in major newspapers everywhere. His reporting also sends shockwaves through the Black community suffering from an epidemic of crack cocaine. Meetings are held in South Central LA and elsewhere demanding a satisfactory explanation from the CIA. Six months after the CIA director John Deutsch speaks to an angry audience at one of these meetings, Bill Clinton fires him.
This is the real drama of “Kill the Messenger”, recreating these events without the slightest degree of exaggeration. It is a film that you can recommend to friends and relatives for Chomskyian type insights while they are being entertained. I use the word entertained in the most conventional sense since this is a brilliantly acted, directed and plotted story. The direction is of some significance since Michael Cuesta most important work prior to the film was the HBO series Showtime that is a nasty piece of Islamophobia from what I have heard.
The third act of the film consists of a counterattack by the CIA and the Washington Post that ultimately destroys Webb’s reputation, his career and his life.
Throughout the entire film, Jeremy Renner turns in a bravura performance as a fairly conventional man put into utterly unconventional circumstances. Right now he is my pick for best actor, to go along with my pick of “Kill the Messenger” for best film of 2014.
In 1999, the same year that Webb’s “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion” came out, Jeff St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn published “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press”, a book about Gary Webb’s crusade to tell the truth.
When Webb killed himself in 2004 after finally being worn down by the smears and the loss of income, Jeff and Alex wrote a memorial that read in part:
Trashed by the CIA’s Claque
Gary Webb: a Great Reporter
by ALEXANDER COCKBURN And JEFFREY ST. CLAIR, DECEMBER 13, 2004
News came over the weekend that Gary Webb had died Friday from a gunshot wound to the head in his home in Sacramento, California. It appears to have been self inflicted. The news saddens us, and rekindles our anger at the fouls libels he endured at the hands of his colleagues.
Webb was a great reporter whose best-known work exposed the CIA’S complicity in the import of cocaine into the United States in the 1980s, during the US onslaught on the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. His devastating series Dark Alliance, published in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, provoked a series of wild attacks in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, purporting to demolish Webb and exonerate the Agency.
The attacks were without merit, but the San Jose Mercury News buckled under the pressure and undercut its own reporter with a groveling and entirely unmerited retraction by its publisher. It was a very dark day in the history of American journalism. We described the entire saga in detail in our book Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press which sets the story in the larger context of the Agency’s complicity in drug smuggling since its founding.
Their article also reprises something that Webb wrote for CounterPunch in 2001. If there’s anything that makes me prouder than contributing to the same magazine that Gary Webb wrote for, I can’t think of it.
March 21, 2001 Silencing the Messenger Censoring NarcoNews by Gary Webb CounterPunch
Not long after I wrote a series for the San Jose Mercury News about a drug ring that had flooded South Central Los Angeles with cheap cocaine at the beginning of the crack explosion there, a strange thing happened to me. I was silenced.
This, believe it or not, came as something of a surprise to me. For 17 years I had been writing newspaper stories about grafters, crooked bankers, corrupt politicians and killers — and winning armloads of journalism awards for it. Some of my stories had convened grand juries and sent important people to well-deserved jail cells. Others ended up on 20/20, and later became a best-selling book (not written by me, unfortunately.) I started doing television news shows, speaking to college journalism classes and professional seminars. I had major papers bidding against each other to hire me.
So when I happened across information implicating an arm of the Central Intelligence Agency in the cocaine trade, I had no qualms about jumping onto it with both feet. What did I have to worry about? I was a newspaperman for a big city, take-no-prisoners newspaper. I had the First Amendment, a law firm, and a multi-million dollar corporation watching my back.
Besides, this story was a fucking outrage. Right-wing Latin American drug dealers were helping finance a CIA-run covert war in Nicaragua by selling tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods in LA, who were turning it into crack and spreading it through black neighborhoods nationwide. And all the available evidence pointed to the sickening conclusion that elements of the US government had known of it and had either tacitly encouraged it or, at a minimum, done absolutely nothing to stop it.
And that’s when this strange thing happened. The national news media, instead of using its brute strength to force the truth from our government, decided that its time would be better spent investigating me and my reporting. They kicked me around pretty good, I have to admit. (At one point, I was even accused of making movie deals with a crack dealer I’d written about. The DEA raided my film agent’s office looking for any scrap of paper to back up this lie and appeared disappointed when they came up emptyhanded.)
To this day, no one has ever been able to show me a single error of fact in anything I’ve written about this drug ring, which includes a 600-page book about the whole tragic mess. Indeed, most of what has come out since shows that my newspaper stories grossly underestimated the extent of our government’s knowledge, an error to which I readily confess. But, in the end, the facts didn’t really matter. What mattered was making the damned thing go away, shutting people up, and making anyone who demanded the truth appear to be a wacky conspiracy theorist. And it worked.