(2014) True Life Drama (Focus) Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Matthew Lintz, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Robert Patrick, Barry Pepper, Andy Garcia, Paz Vega, Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Schiff, Ray Liotta, Dan Futterman, Gil Bellows, Aaron Farb, Josh Close, Yul Vazquez, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jen Harper, Jena Sims. Directed by Michael Cuesta
In 1996, Gary Webb was an investigative reporter working in the Sacramento bureau for the San Jose Mercury News. He had been part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team for the newspaper’s coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.
While covering the trial of a drug dealer (Farb) he is contacted by a beautiful, sexy but mysterious Latina woman (Vega) – the dealer’s girlfriend – who drops off some documents that his lawyer had been given during discovery, documents that clearly had never meant to be given to the lawyer. In it, the dealer had been apparently working for the United States government back in the ’80s as a paid informant – and selling drugs while he was. Not such a big deal until it became clear that the CIA was who he was selling drugs for.
Webb would dig deeper and discover that the proceeds of the drug sales were being used to fund the Contras in the civil war going on in Nicaragua, a war that then-President Reagan desperately wanted to wage and one in which Congress had forbidden him to do so. He would visit Nicaraguan jails, abandoned airfields, chasing his story wherever his leads took him.
With a supportive editor (Winstead), a loving wife (DeWitt) and a son (Lintz) who was as proud of him as could be, he brought all his facts together and wrote a multi-part series called Dark Alliance delineating the ties between the epidemic of crack cocaine that was impoverishing America’s inner cities, the Contra rebels and the Central Intelligence Agency. The Merc’s state of the art website (at the time) proudly pimped the articles for those outside of San Jose to peruse.
It was a bombshell. One of the first new stories to go viral, it brought Webb great acclaim and notoriety. Still, he’s warned by a former CIA whistleblower (Sheen) that the CIA would come after him by making the story not about the facts but about Webb himself. And that’s just what happened. The other major newspapers – the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post – attacked Webb’s reporting and all but insinuated that he’d made the story up out of whole cloth. His own newspaper essentially threw him under the bus, refusing to defend their own reporter and his story even though they had every chance to confirm it during the editorial process. It was not the paper’s finest hour.
In the interest of full disclosure, I myself worked for the Circulation department of the San Jose Mercury News before getting laid off in 2006 after their afternoon edition was discontinued. The events depicted in this movie mainly took place after I’d left and I didn’t know Webb at all (he worked out of Sacramento and I was at the main office in San Jose) although I was acquainted with a number of people in the newsroom including Jerry Ceppos, the managing editor who is played by the great Oliver Platt here.
The movie is trying to be a journalism/political thriller along the lines of a All the President’s Men. Some hold Webb in the same regard as Woodward and Bernstein are held in terms of investigative journalism. There is a curiously flat tone to the movie; Renner as Webb often articulates that his job is to bring the facts to the public and at times it feels like the movie is being directed by Jack Webb (no relation).
As I said, I didn’t know Webb in his Mercury News days and so I can’t say for certain how well Renner portrays the late reporter. His son Eric says that Renner caught his father’s essence and mannerisms to a “T” so I’ll go with his assessment on that. Renner is a passionate actor and this is a passion project for him.
As you can imagine, the movie’s presence has resurrected some of the old debates. Washington Post investigative journalism team managing editor wrote an op-ed last Friday excoriating Webb and calling the movie fiction. Other sources including the Narco News – an online newspaper that reports mainly on America’s war on drugs and other Latin American issues – have fired back, defending Webb. As for you dear reader, you don’t have to take anyone’s word on the veracity of Webb’s work. You can see it for yourself including the supporting documents – all published online in 1996 – at the Narco News here.
Frankly I don’t have the wherewithal to join the debate much. The piece itself remains explosive and controversial, even now. Was Webb a saint who just wanted to expose the truth of evildoers to the shining light of the public eye? In part, yes. By all accounts – even those of his detractors – have made it clear that Webb believed in the importance of investigative journalism and he believed in the truth of his own story. Certainly, it wasn’t perfect and he didn’t get everything right. Nobody does. However in the years since the publication of his work, the eventual repudiation of it and Webb’s eventual suicide in light of becoming unemployable at the job he loved, the essence of his story has been in fact validated. There was a connection between crack cocaine, the Contras and the CIA. How much crack was brought to the streets of Los Angeles and other American urban environments because of this dark alliance will probably never be known for certain.
What the movie does get right however is the decline of American journalism. At one time, the fourth estate existed independently of the other powers of American politics – the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It stood as a kind of advocate for the American people, tilting at the windmills of political hanky-panky and bringing that which was hidden in the boardrooms of industry and the back rooms of politics to the light of day. Today, in 2014, we no longer have that protection. The mainstream media is all owned by large corporations – the Mercury News itself is owned by a hedge fund which in recent days quietly closed down and sold its iconic headquarter building on Ridder Park Drive and moved what little staff remains to a downtown San Jose office building.
It was unheard of back in the day for a newspaper to throw one of its own reporters under the bus, but that’s what Ceppos and the Mercury News did. While in Ceppos’ extraordinary column which some have labeled an apology letter that in effect distanced the paper from Webb’s reporting there was some reference to “failure at every level and at every step” to properly edit the piece and verify the information (despite the presence of corroborating documentation which in what was then groundbreaking transparency was published online), at the end of the day we have since then seen a failure of mainstream journalism to stand up against corruption when it may potentially affect their advertising bottom line. We have seen an unwillingness to stand up against those whose activities cause harm to the public good, or segments of the public. We live in a world where real journalism, the kind that was meant to stand up for all of us, mainly exists on the Internet and is lost in the party-centric shouting of right wing and left wing posturing. In his grave, Gary Webb must be rolling indeed.
REASONS TO GO: Examines the erosion of journalism in this country.
REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing. Confusing at times.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language not to mention some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise at one time expressed interest in the Gary Webb role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Absence of Malice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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