Kill the Messenger


Jeremy Renner doesn't want Matthew Lintz to hear what he's about to tell Rosemarie DeWitt.

Jeremy Renner doesn’t want Matthew Lintz to hear what he’s about to tell Rosemarie DeWitt.

(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
NEXT: The Boxtrolls

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The Bourne Ultimatum


The Bourne Ultimatum

Matt Damon ponders how much cooler he would have looked if the production had sprung for a Harley.

(Universal) Matt Damon, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Julia Stiles, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, Paddy Considine, Edgar Ramirez, Trevor St John, Daniel Bruhl, Joey Anash, Tom Gallop, Corey Johnson, Colin Stinton . Directed by Paul Greengrass

The most recent installment of the hit film series based on the John Le Carre spy novels, The Bourne Ultimatum picks up pretty much where the last film, The Bourne Supremacy left off, in Moscow. We pick up with memory-challenged superspy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) being chased by the Moscow police through the back alleys of Moscow. An injured Bourne finally makes his way into a closed for the night medical clinic where he tries to effect crude repairs, but he is interrupted by a pair of clever cops. They aren’t quite clever enough and he escapes once again, disappearing from the CIA grid.

Back in the States, CIA director Ezra Kramer (Glenn) is very eager for Bourne to be caught. Deputy Director Noah Vosen (Strathairn) believes Bourne is a major threat to the agency, whereas Deputy Director Pamela Landy (Allen) thinks Bourne is not necessarily out to take down the agency, but instead to get answers. Landy is put in charge of the hunt for Jason Bourne.

In Turin, a newspaper columnist (Considine) meets with a CIA section chief (Stinton) who gives the columnist information about Blackbriar, the successor to the Treadstone program that created Bourne (and that Bourne essentially destroyed). The CIA, apparently monitoring every cell phone call on the planet, picks up a call from the columnist to his editor that contains the word “Blackbriar” and immediately he is put under surveillance. Bourne by chance reads the man’s column (apparently he’s a big fan of the Guardian newspaper, since he reads it in another country) and realizes that the columnist may have information that Bourne needs. Of course, this sets off all sorts of mayhem, including a chance meeting between Bourne and Nikki Parsons (Stiles), the Treadstone agent who helped Bourne previously. Chased by the CIA, Interpol and quite probably some irate Girl Scouts, Bourne makes his way to New York City with the intention of discovering the truth about himself and possibly bringing an end to the game he no longer wants to play.

In a terse spy thriller like this one, you have to take a few things on faith, and suspend disbelief to a certain extent. It’s hard to believe that an agency with the technical ability to pick out a single word in a phone conversation involving two men not under suspicion for anything are unable to suss out a man entering their country undisguised under a passport they themselves issued. I mean, don’t they have computers at the airport?

Plot holes aside, you come to a Bourne movie for the action sequences, and here the movie doesn’t disappoint. Chased by assassins (and chasing them), evading detection by legions of agents and police, director Greengrass sets up a massive body count (not to mention an auto body count, as the film might just be worse for automobiles than for stuntmen) and extended action sequences which, while breaking no new ground, do cover old ground expertly. He keeps the suspense ratcheted up to 11 throughout most of the movie, with very little breathing room and manages to move the plot along with expository sequences without breaking momentum created by the action scenes – the one in Tangiers, by the way, might be one of the best you’ll ever see. However, be warned many sequences appear to be filmed by hand-held cameras. While this delivers a kind of you-are-there feel to these sequences, in my opinion it’s used a little overly much and gives the movie a kind of jerky quality that I found jarring.

Damon continues to do the part of Jason Bourne with extraordinary aplomb, rarely displaying much emotion but allowing the feelings bubbling below the surface to see the light of day from time to time. Strathairn plays a worthy adversary who picks up after Chris Cooper and Brian Cox from the first two movies and acquits himself nicely. Stiles does some of her best work in the Bourne movies and as the only other actor besides Damon to appear in all three movies, providing some nice continuity.

The movie takes place in several European cities, including Moscow, Turin, Madrid and in Tangiers, Morocco as well as New York City. The movie uses actual locations to add a further air of realism, a nice touch (which created some difficulties for the filmmakers – if you look closely during the train station scene, there are people who notice the cameras and point to them). While many of the secrets of Jason Bourne are explained (including his actual identity), there is certainly enough room left at the end for a sequel if the filmmakers and actors choose to go there which for awhile, it appeared they did until Greengrass recently withdrew from the proposed fourth Bourne film, leaving the status of the movie very much up in the air – Damon’s participation without Greengrass is certainly less likely.

Like most of the third movies, this one is pretty flawed but you can take some solace in the fact that while it doesn’t arise above its own ambitions, the movie nevertheless fulfills those ambitions nicely. In other words, you get exactly what you came to see.

WHY RENT THIS: Awesome action sequences as have become synonymous with this franchise. Exotic locations that bring to mind the cold war spy thrillers that the source material was contemporaneous with. The tension is unrelenting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot holes are hard to ignore. Too much hand-held camerawork which was cliche even before this was made.

FAMILY VALUES: While the action sequences are terrific, they may be a bit overwhelming for some, as the sudden and sometimes realistic violence will be.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Among the pictures of terminated agents that Landy faxes near the film’s conclusion are producer Frank Marshall and actor Richard Chamberlin, who portrayed Bourne in a 1988 TV mini-series.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: Nothing listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince