This one has all the ingredients of a dreamed-up Hollywood blockbuster: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist uncovers a big story involving drugs, the CIA and a guerrilla army. Despite threats and intimidation, he writes an explosive exposé and catches national attention. But the fates shift. Our reporter's story is torn apart by the country's leading media; he is betrayed by his own newspaper. Though the big story turns out to be true, the writer commits suicide and becomes a cautionary tale.
Hold on, though. The above is not fiction.
"Kill the Messenger," an actual film coming soon to a theater near you, is the true story of Sacramento-based investigative reporter Gary Webb, who earned both acclaim and notoriety for his 1996 San Jose Mercury News series that revealed the CIA had turned a blind eye to the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras trafficking crack cocaine in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere in urban America in the 1980s. One of the first-ever newspaper investigations to be published on the Internet, Webb's story gained a massive readership and stirred up a firestorm of controversy and repudiation.
After being deemed a pariah by media giants like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, and being disowned by his own paper, Webb eventually came to work in August 2004 at SN&R. Four months later, he committed suicide at age 49. He left behind a grieving family—and some trenchant questions:
Why did the media giants attack him so aggressively, thereby protecting the government secrets he revealed? Why did he decide to end his own life? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Gary Webb?
Like others working at our newsweekly in the brief time he was here, I knew Webb as a colleague and was terribly saddened by his death. Those of us who attended his unhappy memorial service at the Doubletree Hotel in Sacramento a week after he died thought that day surely marked a conclusion to the tragic tale of Gary Webb.
Because here comes "Kill the Messenger," a Hollywood film starring Jeremy Renner as Webb; Rosemarie DeWitt as Webb's then wife, Sue Bell (now Stokes); Oliver Platt as Webb's top editor, Jerry Ceppos; and a litany of other distinguished actors, including Michael K. Williams, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia and Robert Patrick. Directed by Michael Cuesta (executive producer of the TV series "Homeland"), the film opens in a "soft launch" across the country and in Sacramento on October 10.
Members of Webb's immediate family—including his son Eric, who lives near Sacramento State and plans a career in journalism—expect to feel a measure of solace upon the release of "Kill the Messenger."
"The movie is going to vindicate my dad," he said.
For Renner—who grew up in Modesto and is best known for his roles in The "Bourne Legacy," "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," "The Avengers" and "The Hurt Locker"—the film was a chance to explore a part unlike any he'd played before. During a break in filming "Mission Impossible 5," he spoke to SN&R about his choice to star in and co-produce "Kill the Messenger."
"The story is important," said Renner. "It resonated with me. It has a David and Goliath aspect.
"He was brave, he was flawed. ... I fell in love with Gary Webb."
There's a scene in Kill the Messenger that will make every investigative journalist in America break into an insider's grin. It's the one where—after a year of tough investigative slogging that had taken him from the halls of power in Washington, D.C., to a moldering jail in Central America to the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles—Renner as Webb begins to actually write the big story. In an absorbing film montage, Renner is at the keyboard as it all comes together—the facts, the settings, the sources. The truth. The Clash provides the soundtrack, with Joe Strummer howling: Know your rights / these are your rights ... You have the right to free speech / as long as you're not dumb enough to actually try it.
It took the real Gary Webb a long time to get to this point in his career.
His father, a U.S. Marine, moved Webb around a lot in his youth, from California to Indiana to Kentucky to Ohio. He wound up marrying his high-school sweetheart, Sue Bell, with whom he had three children. Inspired by the reporting that uncovered Watergate and in need of income, he left college three units shy of a degree and went to work at The Kentucky Post, then The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, where he rose quickly through the ranks of grunt reporters. Dogged in his pursuit of stories, Webb landed a job at the Mercury News in 1988 and became part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for reporting on the Loma Prieta earthquake.
It was the summer of 1996 when the lone-wolf journalist handed his editors a draft of what would become the three-part, 20,000-word exposé "Dark Alliance." The series was exhaustive and complex. But its nugget put human faces on how CIA operatives had been aware that the Contras (who had been recruited and trained by the CIA to topple the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua) had smuggled cocaine into the United States and, through drug dealers, fueled an inner-city crack-cocaine epidemic.