Movie News & Reviews

‘Kill the Messenger’ sheds light on dark time for late Sacramento reporter

Gary Webb, the late Sacramento investigative reporter played by Jeremy Renner in the new film “Kill the Messenger,” seemed to come from a movie even before they made one about him.

He drove motorcycles and a vintage Triumph sports car, favored aviator shades and took a bushy 1970s-style mustache well into the 1990s. A Marine’s son, Webb was a crusader for justice.

“The first time I saw him operate as a reporter, (Gov. Pete Wilson) was having his annual press conference where he unveils the budget,” said Tom Dresslar, who once was part of the Capitol press corps with Webb. “Gary asked him, ‘You know, governor, you keep sticking it to the poor with these budget cuts. What about having the rich people share some of the pain, by reducing tax breaks for the wealthy and the big corporations?’ ”

Added Dresslar with a grin: “It did not go over too well.”

Webb, a San Jose Mercury News reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner (for group coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake), ruffled feathers regularly. But never more so than when he wrote his 1996 “Dark Alliance” series for the Mercury News.

The three-day, 20,000-word series connected aspects of the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles to Nicaraguan drug suppliers who, it maintained, had funneled drug proceeds to the CIA-backed contra rebels fighting the socialist-leaning Sandinistas.

Published concurrently on the Mercury News’ website, along with links to court documents and other sourcing, the series was among the first to go “viral,” before that term applied to the Internet. It brought the Mercury News site hundreds of thousands of new visitors in the days and weeks after it first appeared.

Word had spread about the series – a graphic for which, depicting a man smoking crack under the CIA seal, obliterated the nuances in Webb’s reporting – through the still-new Internet, talk radio, television and word of mouth. Rep. Maxine Waters, the congresswoman representing drug-ravaged South Central Los Angeles, requested federal and congressional inquiries of the role U.S. government agencies might have played in the crack trade.

Rival newspapers, after mostly ignoring the story at first, responded to its subsequent mushrooming by poking holes in it. The Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times ran stories challenging Webb’s conclusions.

In 1997, the Mercury News published a letter to readers from executive editor Jerry Ceppos that was not a full retraction but acknowledged problems with the series, which he said “strongly implied” CIA knowledge of the drug connection.

“Although members of the drug ring met with contra leaders paid by the CIA, and Webb believes the relationship with the CIA was a tight one,” Ceppos wrote, “I feel that we did not have proof that top CIA officials knew of the relationship.” Ceppos also wrote that the series should have included a CIA response.

The letter also said Webb disagreed with Ceppos. Webb was reassigned to the newspaper’s Cupertino bureau, two hours from his home. He quit the paper, where he had worked since 1988, in 1997. His 1998 book “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion” detailed his reporting of the series and the backlash it engendered. (“Messenger,” opening Friday, is based in part on that book.)

A 1998 CIA inspector general’s report denied any acknowledged CIA ties to specific drug-world figures highlighted in Webb’s series. But it also confirmed the larger brush strokes of Webb’s reporting by finding the CIA had continued to work with certain contras despite drug-dealing allegations.

The report ultimately did little to save Webb’s standing as an investigative journalist. He committed suicide in 2004, at age 49, at his Carmichael home, after what his family says was a struggle with depression.

“Messenger” stars two-time Oscar nominee and Modesto native Renner and was directed by Michael Cuesta, former executive producer of the Showtime CIA drama “Homeland.” It’s a political thriller that casts Webb as David vs. a government-and-media Goliath and might help restore Webb’s reputation. At least that was the intent of Webb’s ex-wife, Sue Stokes (played by Rosemarie DeWitt in the film), when she first spoke with screenwriter Peter Landesman several years ago.

Landesman wanted to adapt the 2006 Nick Schou book “Kill the Messenger,” in which journalist Schou maps out the Webb saga. Webb had respected Schou when he was alive, Stokes said. The idea of making a film had been brought up before, she said, but she could get behind a movie based on Schou’s book.

Stokes was consulted during the screenwriting process, she said. The journey to screen entailed a few starts and stops before Renner used his industry pull to get the movie made. (He also is a producer.)

“I thought it was a very important story, and I was very passionate about it, because Gary and I were married at the time, and I lived through that with him, and I saw what happened,” Stokes said in joint interview at a Folsom coffee shop with her son, Ian Webb. (Stokes, Ian and the couple’s other children, Eric and Christine, all live in the Sacramento region.)

The movie sticks to a 1995-97 timeline – through Webb’s reporting process, the series’ publication, the backlash and his transfer to Cupertino – but moves up some events that happened after it. It also invents other moments and ages Ian from a preteen to around 16. That a film about a man whose integrity was questioned takes liberties with facts might seem ironic, but the thriller, like most Hollywood films rooted in real life, is “based on a true story” rather than the absolute truth.

The film follows Webb on the hot trail of a story he was not looking for, but to which he was tipped off by the femme-fatale girlfriend (Paz Vega) of a drug dealer. The trail leads to an imprisoned Nicaraguan drug kingpin (Andy Garcia) and a big L.A. drug dealer named “Freeway” Ricky Ross (Michael K. Williams), and to shadowy figures who might or might not be following and/or monitoring the reporter.

“They have to have a thriller factor in there,” said Ian, 30, himself a camera man by profession. But “Messenger” sticks to the truth of Webb’s painful personal odyssey, his son said.

Ian understands why his character was aged up in the film, he said, because it lets the movie portray Ian’s real-life bond with his father over their shared love of motorcycles. The resulting scene “helped show how much my dad cared about us,” Ian said.

The movie includes a shot of a building it designates as a Sacramento Capitol news bureau. That scene and almost every other were shot in and around Atlanta, because of Georgia’s filmmaking tax incentives. Even scenes set in Central America. Only a Washington, D.C., scene in which Webb meets with a source (Michael Sheen) was shot on actual location.

Stokes provided producers with home movies, photos and other artifacts, as well as old VHS tapes of Webb being interviewed on TV by Chris Matthews and others during the “Alliance” controversy.

“A lot of stuff in the (home) office scenes, that is actually our dad’s stuff,” Ian said. “It just means a lot to see those (things), even if nobody else knows.”

DeWitt came to Sacramento for a four-hour lunch with Stokes. “(DeWitt) said, ‘If I am going to play you, I have to know what you are like,’ ” Stokes said.

Renner has said he studied the family photos and videos in preparation for playing Webb, but he did not meet the family until they visited the set in Atlanta. “He was great – we sat in the lunch room for over an hour just eating and talking,” Ian said.

They watched scenes being shot in a facsimile of the Mercury News’ newsroom. Scenes set in the Mercury News and Los Angeles Times offices are as tense as those in which Webb bribes his way into a Nicaraguan prison.

You can feel the apoplexy radiate from an L.A. Times editor as he scolds his staff for being beaten on a story in their own backyard.

The L.A. Times scenes might not have been as dramatic in real life, but the paper did put 17 reporters on Dark Alliance/Webb follow-ups and ran a giant one on the history of crack that seemed aimed partly at disputing the Mercury News series.

“Messenger” director Cuesta, during an interview in San Francisco, said he knew about the “Alliance” hubbub when it happened but was not aware until he read the script of how other journalists tried to take apart Webb’s stories.

“A lot of the things he uncovered are true and real,” Cuesta said of Webb’s work on the “Alliance” series. “(But) you can never indict the CIA. It is impossible. I think what’s really an injustice is how these newspapers attacked him the way they did.”

Stokes was married to Webb for 21 years. The pair met as teenagers in Indiana, one of Webb’s stops in his military-family childhood. She said she and Webb were “very close” during the Dark Alliance blow-back period. But he later “just became more and more depressed, and his behavior more erratic,” she said. They divorced in 2000, and Stokes since has remarried.

But Webb appeared to be able to keep it together at work during those post-“Alliance” years. “He was a true professional,” said Dresslar, who worked with Webb for the Joint Legislative Audit Committee – Webb’s post Mercury News gig. Dresslar knew Webb for many years, going back to when Dresslar covered the Capitol for the legal newspaper the Daily Journal and Webb for the Mercury News.

For the committee, Dresslar and Webb worked on the investigation into the state’s failed software contract with Oracle. “The investigative work we did had some kinship with journalism, and I think that’s why he liked it,” said Dresslar, who was recently appointed special assistant to the commissioner at the state Department of Business Oversight.

In early 2004, Webb lost his subsequent job with Assembly speaker’s Office of Member Services after a leadership change. Still in touch with Stokes, he despaired to her that he never would find another job in daily journalism.

“I said Gary, ‘You are such a good reporter, you can get a job, (but) you are going to look outside Sacramento,’” Stokes said. “But he said, ‘No one is going to hire me after ‘Dark Alliance.’ ”

Though no daily newspaper bit when he sent out résumés, the weekly Sacramento News & Review hired him. Melinda Welsh had been the publication’s editor in 1997 when it put Webb on the cover during the midst of the “Alliance” controversy. She worked as Webb’s colleague in 2004, when the paper hired him. She said the movie portrays him accurately.

“My sense of him was he was smart, dogged … and that certainly is communicated in the movie,” she said.

Welsh said Webb did “communicate something of a tired-of-it-all quality,” at the News & Review. “I think (he was) a little disappointed by his fate. He hadn’t set out to work in the world of weekly journalism, for probably what for most (veteran daily newspaper) reporters is lesser pay, and less prestige, in some circles.”

But he was productive, writing two cover investigative pieces during the four months he worked for the weekly before his death in December 2004.

The movie’s timeline does not encompass the Legislature or News & Review jobs, and it informs the audience of Webb’s death in a postscript. The filmmakers chose to focus not on the moment of his real passing, but on the spiritual death that occurred when his credibility was ruined, Cuesta said.

“His bliss was his work,” Cuesta said. “It is a tragedy.”

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