Kill the Messenger, the story of the personal destruction of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, is a grim little film that will leave you feeling almost hopeless about the prospect of successfully challenging a corrupt government and a thoroughly complicit corporate media. Nevertheless, I think it’s a film that everybody needs to see. Rent it on Amazon, find a theater showing it, borrow it from a friend, buy the DVD, but find a copy and watch it, preferably twice. It’s far from the best film of 2014 — That would be Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch – but it might be the most important.
In 1995, a 40-year-old staff-writer for the San Jose Mercury News stumbled upon what every journalist dreams of finding, the chance to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. While the outlines of the CIA’s history with Freeway Ricky Ross had already been alluded to by Senator John Kerry and the Iran Contra hearings, Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance, one of the first major news stories to be published simultaneously on the web and in the print media, filled in all the gaps. Webb was a veteran reporter with an excellent reputation, and a willingness to challenge corrupt power, but nothing prepared him for the campaign of personal destruction that followed his exposure of the CIA’s use of drug money to fund the Reagan Administration’s Contra War against the government of Nicaragua.
Kill the Messenger opens with Gary Webb, Jeremey Renner, working on a story about government seizure of the assets of accused, but not yet convicted drug dealers. His editor, the real life Dawn Garcia fictionalized as “Anna Simons” and played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is reluctant to publish the whole piece, a tentativeness in the face of government power that will later become devastating to Webb’s career, but he manages to convince her. The story is a success, so much so that Coral Baca, the wife of an accused drug trafficker, decides that she can use him to save her husband from going to prison. She gives him a leaked transcript from a grand jury showing that Danilo Blandon, an ex-official for the ousted Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, and another accused drug trafficker, was an informant for the federal government. Webb takes the information to Alan Fenster, the defense attorney for crack kingpin “Freeway Ricky Ross,” who Blandon is planning to testify against. He then manages to tie both Blandon and Freeway Ricky Ross to Norwin Meneses and the Nicaraguan Contras, the right wing counter-revolutionaries Ronald Reagan had labeled the “moral equivalent of the founding fathers,“ and the story is complete.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had waged a terrorist war against the leftist government of Nicaragua. Blocked by Congress – Remember when the checks and balances in the Constitution actually used to work once in awhile? – he went underground. His administration traded weapons to Iran. The CIA went even further, protecting men like Danilo Blandon and Freeway Ricky Ross in exchange for money to fund the anti-communist counter-revolution in Central America. The crack cocaine epidemic that followed devastated the black community, but to the CIA and the Reagan Administration, black people were simply “collateral damage.” Dark Alliance not only completed the argument for impeaching Ronald Reagan, it exposed the “war on drugs” as a complete fraud.
The political environment of 1996 was quite a bit different than it is today. There was no “social media.” The web was in its infancy. The print media and the broadcast news networks, both of which had and have extensive ties to both the CIA and the FBI, controlled the flow of information. You couldn’t self-publish a book at Amazon, make money online, put up a Kickstarter, or organize a Twitter mob to promote your ideas. For newspaperman like Gary Webb, not being able to write for a mainstream newspaper meant the end of his career. Webb knew this. His editors at the San Jose Mercury News knew it.
Most importantly of all, the CIA knew it. They knew that while journalism will occasionally produce a Hunter S. Thompson, an Alexander Cockburn, a Raymond Bonner, or a Chris Hedges, writers from moneyed backgrounds who work for elite publications, or gifted self-promoters who can make a living outside of any established institution, most newspaper reporters are people like Gary Webb, middle-class family men with mortgages and kids in college. What’s more, their editors rarely have much in common with Ben Bradlee of the Watergate-era Washington Post. Jerry Ceppos and Dawn Garcia/Anna Simons initially backed the story because it was a good story. It sold newspapers. It put them in line to win the Pulitzer. But they weren’t about to lose money, and they certainly weren’t going to face down the CIA, who immediately began to push back against Dark Alliance, or more established papers like the LA Times or New York Times, who were resentful over having been scooped.
Dark Alliance is at its most powerful, and most grim, in its second half, when a dark alliance of government officials and corporate media “journalists” go to work to shift the story from the CIA’s connection to the drug trade to Gary Webb himself. Webb probably thought that once he broke the story other newspapers and TV stations would take up where he left off, that they would send their own teams of investigative journalists to look for the truth. Instead, the government and the corporate media decided to “investigate” Gary Webb, nitpicking away at his leads, bullying his sources into recanting, going over his personal life with a fine tooth comb. Only a Ralph Nader – an ascetic who weathered a similar smear campaign in the 1960s – can come away from that kind of “investigation” with his reputation intact. Gary Webb, who had a damaging extramarital affair in the 1980s, was no ascetic. Soon, his marriage began to unravel. He was transferred to the San Jose Mercury News branch office in Cupertino, a backwater similar to a publication like the Westfield, New Jersey Patch.
After the CIA and the corporate media killed Gary Webb’s story, wrecked his family, and destroyed his career, it was only a matter of time before Webb killed himself. He committed suicide in 2004. Kill the Messenger is very effective at dramatizing his emotional disintegration. Jeremy Renner and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are excellent actors, especially Winstead, who’s mastered a facial expression that says “sure it’s wrong to stab my reporter in the back but hey I’m upset about it so that makes it all OK.” But Kill the Messenger’s grim second half is also its biggest weakness. Unlike the very similar film The Insider (1999), Kill the Messenger does not end on a redemptive note. Challenge “the system,” it says, and you will be destroyed. The overwhelming tone is one of hopelessness, despair. Gary Webb is largely forgotten. Kill the Messenger has not been a hit, and the very men who brought us Freeway Ricky Ross and Iran Contra will probably get one more term in power when Jeb Bush becomes President in 2016. Movies as downbeat as Kill the Messenger rarely become hits. And that’s too bad.
People who will see Kill the Messenger already know the story of Gary Webb and Dark Alliance. But the people who need to see it, the hordes of “patriotic” film-goers lining up to see America Sniper, probably won’t. How can we get Chris Kyle fans to become Gary Webb fans? That is the question. Sadly, it’s one I can’t answer.