san jose mercury news

The Dangerous Search for Truth

Jeremy Renner in the Focus Features release "Kill the Messenger" (2014)

Jeremy Renner in the Focus Features release “Kill the Messenger” (2014)

This weekend I went to the Cape Cinema in Dennis to watch Kill the Messenger, a movie that was only playing in that one movie theater, (a fact that was appealing since lately it seems only the same three or four movies play in rotation at each of the Cape’s art house cinemas). I knew almost nothing about the film, but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this film. Let me rephrase that; actually I did not really “enjoy” the movie so much as I was enraged by the story it told.

Kill the Messenger, based on the book Dark Alliance and directed by Michael Cuesta, tells the story of San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), who broke the story of CIA involvement in trafficking cocaine in order to fund the rebels in Nicaragua, and subsequent complicity in the development of a crack epidemic in African-American communities in the United States, including South Central Los Angeles. The story takes place in the late 1990s, a time in which the impact of these illegal and immoral tactics had been deeply felt in inner cities across the country for some time. It’s also a climate of “tough on crime” drug law enforcement that goes beyond the pale with high rates of imprisonment, draconian forfeiture laws, and little focus on rehabilitation or prevention. Webb’s story, which relied on government documents as well as interviews with criminals who were apparently working with the CIA, clearly enraged people in the black community and put the CIA on the defensive, but where this story gets most fascinating is in its portrayal of how others in the media reacted to Webb’s reporting.

The film offers a strong critique of the media and its uneasy alliances with Washington at the upper echelons, and the lack of journalistic integrity at the San Jose Mercury News when Webb worked there and was completely abandoned by them, to tragic results.

Webb’s story is about searching for the truth, but more so, it is about what happens when you find the truth. The larger story of the CIA’s involvement in peddling crack embodies this theme, but the film’s discussion of truth extends to a whole range of subplots, characters, and circumstances, from the CIA agent who feels the need to unburden his conscience with a late-night, off-the-record confession to Webb to Webb’s own tragic past indiscretions, which he confesses to his son (played marvelously by Lucas Hedges) in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in this difficult story.

Renner’s portrayal of the embattled journalist is a game-changer in terms of his career. He gives us a man torn between deeply held values and rage, love for his family and ambition, honor and pride. His Webb is rough around the edges, and as the drama unfolds, he becomes increasingly unhinged, but always in a way that feels real and justifiable.

Kill the Messenger shook me to the bone, and I stayed in the theater longer than usual at the end of the screening, trying to sort out the injustices it conveyed. I was also trying to keep from pulling my hair out and either screaming in rage or crying in despair.

The truths we seek and the ones we hide from say something about who we are. This is as true for individuals as it is for communities, and by extension, governments and countries. Much of Webb’s original story has since been vindicated, but as the film tells us in its postscript, that fact was never fully acknowledged because it was revealed in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But also, perhaps, it was never given the editorial space it deserved for the same reasons editors at The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times focused their attention back in 1996 on discrediting the reporter who scooped them rather than on investigating the earth shattering revelations in his reporting.