Posted on October 22, 2015 at 5:03 pm

Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures

Often a movie “based on a true story” confirms and extends our understanding of what happened. This film, based on the “true story” that led to the departure of one of the most respected newsmen of all time, Dan Rather, from CBS, asserts its ambitions with its title and goes on to explore the very nature of truth and our willingness or ability to uncover and recognize it. I did not have strong views about what happened in 2004, just a recollection of the incident as a turning point, with the most respected broadcast journalist in the country being brought down by bloggers, who were able to determine that documents relied on in a story about President George W. Bush were forgeries. In my mind, the story was about the shift from old to new media, where the Davids of the blogosphere could challenge the powerful Goliaths of CBS News.

But in this movie, based on the book by Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett, blazingly intelligent and forceful), we see another side of the story, written by James Vanderbilt. This is her version (if there is such a thing as versions) of the truth.

No matter which version of the story you believe, lesson number one of this movie is that you are at your most vulnerable when you feel most powerful. Mapes has just come off the greatest triumph of her career, the Peabody award-winning story about the horrific abuse of prisoners by the US military at Abu Ghraib. She is looking for another great scoop, and as the Presidential election approaches, it looks like she has one. Rumors about special treatment for George W. Bush, both in being allowed to serve in the National Guard and during his time there, have circulated for years, and now there seems to be substantiation, including on-the-record statements by the former Lieutenant Governor and some memos from the younger Bush’s commanding officer. Four document experts were called in by Mapes to authenticate the documents and, with the proviso that as photocopies there was no way to test the ink or paper of the originals to verify them completely, the experts signed off. The other steps taken by Mapes and the staff of reporters, including research expert Mike Smith (Topher Grace, who should be in more movies) and former military officer Dennis Quaid (ditto), are impressive. But it is possible that their supervisors did not ask enough questions and it is certain that moving up the broadcast date at the last minute cut off their ability to lock down all of the story.

And then it all fell apart. Bloggers identified problems with the memos’ fonts that indicated they were created on a computer, not a typewriter, and thus could not have been written in the 1970’s. CBS convened a commission led by a former (Republican) Attorney General to review the story. Their focus was not as much on whether the story was true or not (the memos were just one small part of the story) but whether the reporters had a political agenda.

A lot of people got fired. Smith makes a speech on the way out the door that identifies a culprit more insidious than partisan politics — corporate conflicts of interest. There are times when protection of shareholder value is not consistent with getting the story. The most important question this movie asks is what that means for democracy and for, well, truth.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language and brief nudity in a photograph. Characters drink and take medicine to deal with stress. There are references to torture and child abuse and there are tense confrontations.

Family discussion: What should Mary have done differently? How did her childhood experiences affect her relationship with Rather and her response to her father? Should she have followed her lawyer’s advice?

If you like this, try two other fact-based films about journalists fighting to expose the truth about powerful people: “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight

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Based on a true story Drama Journalism

Kill the Messenger

Posted on October 9, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and drug content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, including teen drinking, drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Gangster-style violence, sad death, suicide
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 10, 2014 ASIN: B00KSPL01K
Copyright 2014 Focus Features
Copyright 2014 Focus Features

Sometimes an honest, crusading, investigative reporter uncovers corruption and deceit and the result is triumph, a Pulitzer Prize, humiliating resignations and criminal convictions of the guilty and an Oscar-winning movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. And sometimes, instead, the result is killing the messenger. Gary Webb was a passionate, dedicated journalist at the San Jose Mercury News who managed to infuriate not only the CIA but his far bigger journalistic rivals. He uncovered a story no one much wanted told and no one much wanted to hear. Jeremy Renner plays Webb in this effort to give him his due.

Although it is set in the mid-90’s, director Michael Cuesta gives the film a 70’s paranoia, one man against The Man vibe that harks back to “The Parallax View,” “All the President’s Men,” “Z,” and “Serpico.” Renner, who also co-produced, brings his coiled energy and electric physicality to Webb, making journalism seem like a full-contact sport. His Webb is a guy who runs up the courthouse steps like Rocky. We see him early on, walking to his desk in the paper’s outpost near the state capital, going past the grand, imposing signs marking the areas occupied by the big national daily papers to his modest little corner. He’s a small fish in a very big ocean. But he has enormous determination, integrity, a sense of something to prove, and a healthy ego.

And then he gets the lead of a lifetime. A beautiful woman (Paz Vega), the girlfriend of a drug dealer, has some information for him that sounds preposterous. She says he “sold drugs for the government.” Seven tons worth. And it leads to the discovery that the government, specifically the CIA, is funneling money to the Contras in Nicaragua by underwriting the drug trade that is pouring crack into the poorest areas in the inner cities. “National security and crack cocaine in the same sentence — does that not sound strange to you?” And there’s a warning. “My friend, some stories are just too true to tell.”

The problem with writing about bad things done by powerful people is that they will use their power to attack whoever is trying to expose them. “Good investigative reporting ruffles feathers.” Sometimes the creature sporting those feathers will use its claws. To use a neologism from the movie, they will “controversialize” whoever is putting their reputations at risk. Webb was not perfect. He had enemies. At first, his newspaper celebrates his journalistic coup. But when his bosses are put under pressure, they buckle. Soon the once-superstar reporter is exiled to Cupertino. Without the support of his family and the chance to do the work that defines him, he has nothing to hold onto.

The story is still a murky and complicated one, despite post-credit updates on revelations confirming Webb’s reporting. Renner is a magnetic presence and he makes Webb’s passion for telling the story honestly and exposing the dishonesty of others almost palpable. Webb’s scenes with his children are especially touching, though it is too bad to see the talented Rosemary DeWitt relegated to a dull “don’t work so hard, don’t take risks” role. A scene near the end at an awards dinner has an emotional punch.  Renner’s performance has enormous integrity, illuminating the murky compromises and betrayals he exposes and the ones that get the better of him as well.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, drugs, drug dealing, and gangster violence, as well as tense family confrontations.

Family discussion: Who is doing the work that Gary Webb did today? Has the CIA become more accountable as a result of his work? Do we still kill the messenger?

If you like this, try: “Serpico” and Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion and more of the work of real-life reporter Gary Webb

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Based on a book Based on a true story Crime Journalism Movies -- format
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