This reporter loves movies about reporters. That love of flicks about one’s profession isn’t all that unique. Movies about lawyers probably only sell tickets to lawyers. Firefighters probably went to see “Backdraft.” It’s the same old story. If you aren’t impressed by what Hollywood has done with your profession, you can at least go see it for comic relief over all the stuff they got wrong.
A film about reporters that gets it right — tragically, horribly right — is “Kill the Messenger” Jeremy Renner stars as Gary Webb, a brash and somewhat crusty investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. Back in 1996, Webb was working on a piece about the DEA’s asset forfeiture program when he tripped over the roots of a story that the mainstream press had either missed or (as is hinted in the film) willfully ignored: that after Ronald Reagan’s wars in Central America had been defunded by Congress in the 1980s, the CIA had started arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua by looking the other way while Central American coke dealers dumped powder cocaine into South Central Los Angeles. With the coke cashed in on the streets and guns purchased with the proceeds, the same planes would turn around and wing back to Central America.
Webb and his paper eventually published a series of three stories, called “Dark Alliance,” which used official documents, surveillance tapes and quotes by South American drug dealers, coke mules and crack kingpins to shine light into one of the darker corners of late 20th century American history. Soon, Webb’s stories, carried aloft by a newfangled development called the Internet, made their way over the high walls of the Mainstream Media to outraged communities all over America, where black leaders and politicians were soon calling for answers on why the CIA was helping destroy their communities.
As seen in the film, a funny thing happened on the way to Webb winning a Pulitzer, though. Instead of trying to advance his reporting, the mainstream media turned on Webb in a way that’s enough to make you want to go to the kitchen and fold yourself a tinfoil hat. The L.A. Times, for example, had 17 reporters working on picking holes in Webb’s reporting at one point, and “Kill the Messenger” features real footage of big-wheel TV journalists calling Webb everything but a child of God. After his own newspaper eventually backed away from the story, Webb resigned. Though an Inspector General’s report would later confirm much of what Webb’s sources had told him, he was silently blackballed from the profession and never worked for a daily newspaper again. He committed suicide in 2004, just before he was to move back in with his mother because the bank had taken his house.
Renner is perfect for the role of Webb, able to pull off both the reporter’s bulldog tenacity and his vulnerability as he sees the rocks he’d been standing on start to tumble away into the sea. Though the story of how “Dark Alliance” came together is grossly simplified (there’s no mention of the Nicaraguan reporter that Webb worked with extensively on the story, for example, and the process appears to take weeks instead of the months Webb really spent on it), the film feels for the most part like being a reporter in tense situations: asking people the questions they don’t want to answer, while walking the tightrope between pissing them off and making them feel so buddy-buddy that they go off on tangents about their kids. Too, there’s the terrible spectacle of a man’s life destroyed by the way things used to be in journalism, with a few media titans deciding — often with guidance from the agencies they relied on for favors, sources and tips — which stories were fit to print. In that way, “Kill the Messenger” is really a film about this brave new world we live in, where the Internet has brought down all the old gates and gatekeepers. Even if it wasn’t about the slow-motion assassination of a flawed idealist whose only real crime was trying to tell the public the truth as he’d found it, “Kill the Messenger” would still have quite a bit of resonance in this post-Snowden age.