“Kill The Messenger” Gary Webb Film Review and Fact Check 10/17/2014

Short version review: fairly compelling narrative, dialogue ranging from incisive to witty to cliched and overwrought; acting uniformly high caliber; mostly well-paced, with a few brief lapses; conclusion unsatisfactory (not really the fault of the movie.)

Fidelity to the facts: Gets most of the important stuff right, particularly in the first two-thirds of the film; one factual gaffe that I take special exception to; several instances of artistic license in the interest of streamlining the film adaptation, such as combining characters, moving venues, and shifting the chronology of events.

For several reasons, this is a difficult review for me to write.

First: I have a hangup about movie treatments of actual historical events- especially those where I’m familiar with the story from print accounts. I’ve found film treatments on such topics to be variously engaging, boring, entertaining, tedious, gripping, contrived, wrenching, ludicrous, riveting, etc. But those are filmgoer reactions, and when it comes to films about real people and events, I can get nit-picky. Films simply condense too much, and they require a succinct narrative that wraps up in around 120 minutes or less (admittedly, Gandhi was 188 minutes, and perhaps the best of the genre, of those that I’ve watched.)

The upshot is that often events get condensed, chronologies shifted, historical personages are given undue weight or short shrift, or are even invented entirely. It’s typical for the main characters, particularly the lead, to summarize pivotal actions and events with fictional devices like soliloquy- speeches that illustrate their motivations and propel the story. Such artistic shorthand has been central to the craft of theater as long as the form has been around. As long as that’s understood that it isn’t history, latitude can be granted for the artistic merit and poetic truth to guide the narrative.

The problem is that there’s a common tendency in filmgoers to confuse non-fiction-based docudrama with non-fictional documentary fact and historical accuracy.

It’s also the case that some nit-pickers like myself will never be satisfied, because we’re sticklers for accurate factual detail. So people like me aren’t entirely satisfied with Gandhi, or Patton, or Lincoln, or any of the rest of them, no matter how many Oscars the films win. It’s my predilection to be a historical researcher and an investigative journalist. I’ve read several accounts of the Watergate scandal. I’ve never seen All The President’s Men. I’m just a hard sell on this sort of thing. I’m so hardcore that I’d rather read a stack of books than watch a documentary series, never mind getting my history from movies. I’m not usually that much of a snob. It’s a weird kind of snob to be. But I don’t apologize for it.

That said, Kill The Messenger does pretty well, as far as matters of basic accuracy related to the Drk Alliance story itself. What the film gets right: Gary Webb’s introduction to the story, through informer Coral Vaca; Webb’s obtaining the grand jury transcript indicating the strange status of Danilo Blandon, Nicaraguan cocaine wholesaler/FBI informant; Webb’s jailhouse interview with Freeway Rick Ross, imprisoned South L. A. cocaine dealer; Webb’s sitting in on a cocaine trial proceeding that turns out to indicate an unseemly government interest in what should and should not be revealed in open court; Webb’s flight to Nicaragua to meet with Blandon’s supplier Norwin Meneses, serving some not terribly hard time in a Nicaraguan prison as the cost of doing business; and Webb’s assembly of the factual picture into one blockbuster bombshell of a story.

Falsest note in the film: Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) estimating the the Meneses-Blandon-Ross pipeline dealt in “thousands of kilos a day-thousands of kilos a week) of cocaine. Even the lowest estimate that could be surmised from that quote- 1000 kilos/wk, or 52 metric tons per year- adds up to more than half of the entire national demand for cocaine in the mid-1980s. The actual figure was more like 100 kilos a week for 2-3 years running, which is not exactly chicken feed; it was around 5 tons per year. That was enough to make Ricky Ross the top supplier of cocaine in Southern California in the time when he was overseeing his operations, and that fact could have spoken for itself. (Webb obtained plenty of other leads to Contra-related and CIA-protected cocaine smuggling operations elsewhere in the country, but he didn’t include that material in the original Marcury-News Dark Alliance series. I’ll be adding some book and Internet resources that back up his finding on that. But he never claimed to have found one CIA-linked ring smuggling “thousands of kilos a day” or “thousands of kilos a week.” This is an important factual correction to the misinformation in the film.)

Other factually problematic scenes:

the scene of Gary Webb’s house being ransacked for his files by unknown government operatives, while Webb and his family look on in outrage- something like that did happen, but it was done to some of his file archive that was stored in an unoccupied office.

the nighttime scene of Gary Webb becomes aware of intruders apparently trying to tamper with his car or spy on his house, who flee when he chases them off and fires his pistol at them; something like this had happened to Gary earlier in his life, but it was before he had even moved to California and joined the San Jose Mercury-News.

the “disaffected CIA agent” in one of the scenes who shows up in Gary’s office is more accurately a composite character; the actual people the character represents seem to be a combination of a disillusioned Contra supporter and a couple of DEA field agents interviewed by Gary, Michael Levine and Celerino Castillo. Gary never did get a CIA person to talk to him, at least no one who identified themselves as such. (Is this surprising?)

The scene near the end of the film where Gary has been “sent to Coventry”, as the Brits would have it- exiled to a punishment post in Cupertino by his superiors at the Mercury News, and his motorcycle is stolen from a parking space at his motel- it didn’t happen that way.

Yes, Webb was exiled to Cupertino to do trivial local stories by the Mercury-News in the aftermath of the CIA-Beltway Establishment-Big Media backlash against his stories; he eventually resigned from the SJM-N at the beginning of 1998, receiving a separation fee of some unknown amount (he couldn’t talk about the details of the case, it was a sealed legal matter.) But it wasn’t until many years later that Webb’s motorcycle was stolen, just a few days before his life ended. The motorcycle was eventually found by local police not long after Gary’s death, and a suspect charged with the theft; nothing in my research indicates that this was part of an intentional plot to harass him and drive him over the edge.

That’s all for tonight on this review; I’ll have more to add in the near future. I’m not out to discourage anyone from seeing Kill The Messenger; in fact, I intend to see it again soon. The acting is compelling, and the basics of the story are on-point. But I think it’s important to do a thorough fact-check on a story that’s this controversial. I’ve touched on most of the departures from factual accuracy, but there are a few more things that I have to say on that. I also need to point out a few other places where the film story rings especially true for me. Back in a while.

A review and fact-check by another reviewer, on the “History vs. Hollywood” website http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/kill-the-messenger/

Posted in U.S. War on Drugs History
Justice For The Messenger

Gary Webb, American News Media, and the War on Drugs

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