kill-the-messenger-posterI talked to two-time Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner a few weeks ago about his great performance as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb in Michael Cuesta’s Kill the Messenger. As the film continues to open in more cities, I had the chance to talk to screenwriter Peter Landesman about his work on this film. Landesman brought his own skills as a renowned investigative journalist to this remarkable true story.  In the film, set in the 1990s, we learn how Webb stumbled onto a story that led him to the shady origins of the men who started the crack epidemic in our nation’s inner cities and beyond. Webb ultimately discovered that the CIA was allegedly aware of major dealers who were smuggling cocaine into the U.S. and that they were using the profits to arm rebels fighting in Nicaragua. Despite warnings from drug kingpins and CIA operatives to stop his investigation, Webb kept digging and uncovered a conspiracy with explosive implications. His journey took him from the prisons of California to the villages of Nicaragua to the highest corridors of power in Washington, D.C. Gary Webb’s articles drew the kind of attention that threatened not only his career, but also his family and his life. Kill the Messenger features an all-star cast including Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Andy Garcia. I sat down with Peter Landesman in Los Angeles.

Danny Miller: This is such a powerful story. I assume your past as an investigative journalist was a big help in telling this story.

peterlandesmanPeter Landesman: I definitely felt a responsibility to get this story right and to get the world right. This is a movie to a large degree about journalism and I think many people just don’t understand the job.

Is what happened to Gary Webb something that you thought about when you were a journalist?

Definitely. It’s a kind of apocryphal story. I wrote a story when I was an investigative journalist for The New York Times Magazine that turned out to be very controversial and I was similarly attacked. At first I was supported by my editors but ultimately less so. I felt attracted and connected to Gary’s story because I lived it to some degree. But my story had a different outcome — I was vindicated and he wasn’t.

Looking at Gary Webb from today’s vantage point, do you think he was redeemed?

No, not at all. I think The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The L.A. Times still fly the flag they flew a long time ago.

killthemessenger-garyIt seems so bizarre to me how they came after Gary with such a vengeance instead of focusing more on the story itself. Why do you think that happened? 

I think each paper had a different motivation. The L.A. Times felt embarrassed because a lot of this story was right in their backyard. They had already written about Ricky Ross, but they just didn’t realize what a monster he was — they missed it. The Washington Post, particularly Walter Pincus, was piqued because the CIA was his turf — he covered intelligence and Washington matters, and who was this outsider who came in and scooped him on a story that he should have done? And he also had a sort of quid pro quo relationship with the CIA so he was protecting them as well. As for The New York Times, I think once Gary became the story, it just evolved into a kind of feeding frenzy. People stopped talking about what they should have been doing which was moving the story forward. It wouldn’t have been that hard to do, they just never thought to do it.

But even if he’s not vindicated by those papers, many of his accusations have been proven to be accurate, haven’t they? At the very least that the CIA turned a blind eye to some of that drug activity in this country?

Oh, Gary had no idea how right he was.  And it was more than turning a blind eye — I mean, we’re talking about Oliver North here! This was not a guy who’d avoid doing whatever it took to do whatever he was interested in doing.

It’s easy to be cynical about our government at times, but I still find myself shocked by these events.

Look, I’m not anti-government, I think they’re doing the best they can. I’m actually a big believer in the government and the police and the military. I’ve covered a lot of conflict zones and I’m not against any of them, it’s really just about individuals who fuck up and then try to cover it up. Just look at Oliver North — I’m sure he thought he was doing the right thing at the time. I don’t think he was some Darth Vader who was trying to take over the planet, he just didn’t have the forward thought to see the ultimate results of what he was doing.

When you re-read Gary’s original “Dark Alliance” articles, do you agree with the criticism that he “over-reached” in his conclusions?

No, not at all, that was part of the smear campaign against him. He didn’t over-reach, what does that even mean? Yes, there were little things inside his reporting that weren’t quite accurate but they would have been corrected if he had been allowed to move forward.

killthemessenger-editorsThere are so many compelling characters in this story, many of whom are still around. I wondered about Gary’s editors at the San Jose Mercury News who threw him under the bus a bit.

Oh, not a bit — they threw him under the bus 100 percent!

I noticed their names were changed in the film.

Changing their names was a decision made by the studio, I didn’t completely understand the reason for that, to be honest. A lot of this has already been written about, it’s not difficult to find out who we’re talking about here.

They are certainly not depicted as black-and-white villains. There were times in the film when I empathized with their position.

They were under a lot of pressure by outside interests — the ownership of the paper, shareholders, funders, and, perhaps most importantly, their own personal ambition. They all wanted to go work for The New York Times or The Washington Post. They saw this story at the beginning as their elevator up, and then it became clear that it could really hurt their careers.

It’s fascinating to see the depiction of the newspaper industry in the 1990s and realize how much it’s changed since then.

It’s a completely different animal today. I mean, long-lead investigative journalism for the most part, except for a very few newspapers and magazines, is dead, it’s just too expensive. And the reliance on citizen journalism now — on blogs and social media — means that overall stories that help us understand the shape of things are mostly a thing of the past.

Did you get to talk to a lot of the real-life people who are depicted in the film?

Yes, I did. I researched this story for over a year. Nick’s Schou’s book, Kill the Messenger, was sort of a launching off  point but I carried the research and reporting much farther down the line.

And you spoke with Gary’s family members?

Yes, I became very close to them. Gary’s ex-wife, Sue, and their children gave me their blessing. They are a spectacular family. This is obviously a very emotional story for them.

Any comment yet from anyone in the CIA?

No, and I were them, I would just shut the fuck up!