Return of the Messenger

How Jeremy Renner's new film will vindicate investigative journalist Gary Webb

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Some find irony in the fact that Ceppos, in the wake of the controversy, was given the 1997 Ethics in Journalism Award by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Webb, once heralded as a groundbreaking investigative reporter, was soon banished to the paper's Cupertino bureau, a spot he considered "the newspaper's version of Siberia." In 1997, after additional run-ins with his editors, including their refusal to run his follow-up reporting on the "Dark Alliance" series, he quit the paper altogether.

But a year later, he was redeemed when CIA's inspector general, Frederick Hitz, released his 1998 report admitting that the CIA had known all along that the Contras had been trafficking cocaine. Reporter Robert Parry, who covered the Iran-Contra scandal for the Associated Press, called the report "an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA." But the revelation fell on deaf ears. It went basically unnoticed by the newspapers that had attacked Webb's series. A later internal investigation by the Justice Department echoed the CIA report.

But no apology was forthcoming to Webb, despite the fact that the central finding of his series had been proven correct after all.

Earlier this month, Webb's son Eric, 26, opened the door to his Sacramento rental home with a swift grab for the collar of his affable pit-bull mix, Thomas. Eric—lanky at 6 feet 4 inches, with his father's shaggy brown hair and easy expression—attended college at American River College and hopes to become a journalist someday. He was happy to sit down and discuss the upcoming film.

To Eric, the idea that a movie was being made about his dad was nothing new. He'd heard it all at least a dozen times before. Paramount Pictures had owned the rights to "Dark Alliance" for a while before Universal Studios took it on.

"I stopped expecting it," said Eric.

Webb's ex-wife, Stokes, now remarried and still living in Sacramento, had heard it all before, too.

"I'd get discouraged," she said, "but I never really give up hope."

Things finally took off almost eight years ago, when screenwriter Peter Landesman called author Schou, now managing editor at the OC Weekly, about his not-yet-published book about Webb. Landesman was hot to write a screenplay about Webb's story, said Schou.

It was years later when Landesman showed the screenplay to Renner, whose own production company, The Combine, decided to co-produce it. Focus Features, which is owned by Universal, now has worldwide rights to the movie "Kill the Messenger."

"When Jeremy Renner got involved," said Schou, "everything started rolling."

It was the summer of 2013 when Stokes and Webb's children—Eric, his older brother Ian and younger sister Christine—flew to Atlanta for three days on the film company's dime to see a scene being shot.

"The first thing [Renner] did when he saw us was come up and give us hugs and introduce himself," said Eric. "He called us 'bud' and 'kiddo' like my dad used to. ... He even had the tucked-in shirt with no belt, like my dad used to wear. And I was like, 'Man, you nailed that.'"

The scene the family watched being filmed, according to Stokes, was the one where Webb's Mercury News editors tell him "they were gonna back down from the story."

"I was sitting there watching and thinking back to the morning before that meeting," said Stokes. "Gary was getting nervous [that day]. He said, 'I guess I should wear a tie and jacket' to this one. He was nervous but hopeful that they would let him move forward with the story."

Of course, they did not.

After a pause, Stokes said: "It was hard watching that scene and remembering the emotions of that day."

Just a few months ago, in June, Webb's family flew to Santa Monica to see the film's "final cut" at the Focus Features studio. All were thoroughly impressed with the film and the acting. "Jeremy Renner watched our home videos," said Eric. "He studied. All these little words and gestures that my dad used to do—he did them. I felt like I was watching my dad."

When asked how playing the role of Gary Webb compared to his usual action-adventure parts (such as in "The Bourne Legacy"), Renner said it was like "apples and oranges" to compare the two, but then admitted, "I can say this one was more emotionally challenging."

Renner laughed when asked about the impressive cast he'd managed to round up for a comparatively low-budget movie and how he was "going to be washing a whole lot of people's cars and doing their laundry."

Stokes has no regrets about the film.

"Seeing a chapter of your life, with its highs and lows, depicted on the big screen is something you never think is going to happen to you," she said. "It was all very emotional.

"But I loved the movie. And the kids were very happy with how it vindicated their father."

Said Renner, "If [the family gets] closure or anything like that ... that's amazing."

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