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

Life is Hot in Cracktown


Life is Hot in Cracktown

When in doubt, glower.

(Lightning Media) Kerry Washington, Evan Ross, Brandon Routh, RZA, Illeana Douglas, Shannyn Sossamon, Lara Flynn Boyle, Desmond Harrington, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Tony Plana, Victor Razuk, Ridge Canipe, Vondie Curtis-Hall. Directed by Buddy Giovinazzo

There are those who will argue that crack cocaine is the most devastating thing to happen to the projects ever. There is certainly some merit to the argument; crack destroys lives and encourages crime. This insanely addictive drug can turn even good people into monsters.

Sometimes in the movies, you’ll see the heroes walking down an inner city alley and encounter criminals and junkies in various stages of decay. The heroes will interact briefly with them, conclude their business, and then move along. This movie is quite frankly about the people in that alley in the first place.

In a nameless inner city neighborhood lives Marybeth (Washington), a pre-op transsexual who works as a prostitute to help save the money for her operation. She lives with her boyfriend Benny (Harrington), a small-time burglar who is developing issues with his own sexuality. Manny (Razuk) is a devoted husband and father who works two jobs to support his stay-at-home wife (Sossamon) and their colicky baby. Willie (Canipe) is a wise-beyond-his-years young boy who lives in the welfare hotel where Manny is a security guard, his mom (Douglas) a crack addict who chooses drugs over her children. Willie is in love with a heartbreakingly young hooker, and looks after his sister when his mother is too high to care for anybody.

The specter of Romeo (Ross, who is the son of Diana Ross) looms over this neighborhood. He’s a vicious and ambitious thug who wants to move up the ladder in his gang. He is completely amoral and without conscience, but doesn’t have a gun yet. When he finally acquires one, all hell literally breaks loose.

Giovinazzo wrote this based on his own novel, and like those who adapt their own material he had a very difficult time in cutting judiciously. Because this is written as an ensemble piece, the movie shifts gears every time it shifts focus to another character. The overall effect is that of a car with a broken transmission, jarring the driver every time it shifts.

Giovinazzo would have been better served to focus on only a few characters and let the rest fade into the background of the story, but I can see where he might have had difficulty in doing that because there are compelling elements to each story, and compelling performances throughout. Razuk and Canipe are the most memorable of the characters and quite frankly I wouldn’t have minded devoting more time to their stories; however, Washington delivers a spectacular performance and her character’s story shouldn’t be ignored. Ross is a smoldering presence who fills the screen up with absolute dread every time he’s onscreen; you wonder what horrible thing he’s going to do.

The movie opens with an extended gang rape by Romeo and his thugs of his own girlfriend. It’s not a pretty scene and it definitely sets the tone of the movie. Giovinazzo certainly pulls no punches nor shies away from any inner city horror, no matter how cruel or vicious. This may be too intense for some, while others will enjoy wallowing in the grittiness. For me, it’s a slice of inner city life, a particularly rotten and putrid slice with maggots crawling about the carcass. I can’t say I was entertained, but then again I couldn’t tear my eyes away either.

WHY RENT THIS: This redefines gritty. You’ll want to take a shower to wash off the slime when you’re done watching.  Canipe and Razuk are the characters you’ll remember.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There are too many storylines to follow to reasonably get much of a feel for many of the characters.

FAMILY VALUES: Drug use is at a premium here; there is also a good deal of foul language, violence and a fairly graphic depiction of rape. In addition there’s plenty of sex and nudity. Fun for the whole family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Giovinazzo took a ten year break from directing to teach filmmaking at the New York School of Visual Arts and NYU.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Nanny McPhee Returns