Pulitzer prize-winner Gary Webb is arguably the reason we know anything about CIA complicity in the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s—collateral damage of the Reagan administration's desire to fund the Contras despite three Congressional amendments forbidding them. Even more admirably, Webb did not have a goatee.
The evidence is overwhelming: Gary Webb had a mustache.
This October, filmgoers will be invited to witness the dramatic true story of Gary Webb's investigation into one of the darkest corners of the Iran-Contra scandal with Kill the Messenger—a film that will erroneously depict Webb as a man who would parade around in a goatee, like some kind of Gen-X record store clerk or Spanish conquistador.
It's only the most recent indignity cast upon Webb, whose dogged pursuit of this story for the San Jose Mercury News effectively ended his journalism career in the mid-to-late 90s. It was a different era, in some ways. For one, reflexively anti-statist billionaires from Silicon Valley had not quite reached the level of grandiosity and largesse to grant cool new media start-ups to journalists who challenged the national security state. Corporate media consolidation was at an all time high and the relationship these monoliths shared with the rest of the power structure was stable and comfy cozy.
It's a matter of record today that Webb had the reporting for his three-part series on this subject, "Dark Alliance", down cold. A CIA Inspector General's report in 1998 confirmed it, admitting that the agency hid their business relationships with Nicaraguan drug dealers for over a decade. Although a Justice Department investigation into Webb's allegations remains shielded from public view, available court documents from the trial of Nicaraguan kingpin Oscar Danilo Blandón show that his group moved tons of cocaine, seemingly with impunity, for years, and bought arms for the Contras with the proceeds. Both Washington Post ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, and L.A. Times reporter Jesse Katz have since publicly apologized for their paper's roles—pursued with creepy, petty zeal—in allowing senior-level government sources to discredit Webb's reporting.
Of course, all of these belated mea culpas weren't enough to keep the San Jose Mercury News from distancing itself from Webb's reporting, killing his credibility (for a time), and exiling him from the realm of respected journalism.
In a lower-key, but equally noble second act, Gary Webb took a job with the California Assembly Speaker's Office of Member Services and consulted for the state legislature's Task Force on Government Oversight. In December 2004, plagued by demons that many of us can only begin to understand, Gary Webb died of two gun shot wounds to the head in what his family and the Sacramento county coroner agree was a suicide.
Gary Webb left this world as he lived—with a fucking mustache and not a goatee.
Readers can judge for themselves below, comparing Renner's version of Gary Webb in this Kill the Messenger trailer, to Gary Webb himself in a very charming 1998 appearance on C-SPAN. (You will notice half the callers just want to talk about Monica Lewinsky to his resigned bemusement.)
There's no accounting for taste, and without question, it is simply fantastic and great that a solid cast has been pulled together to tell Gary Webb's story.
But, it does something of a disservice to the whole profession of journalism and the reality of this story to depict Webb as some hunky, alternative media chic, Rolling Stone-type reporter dude. Webb was a fairly unassuming presence and his style was closer to Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, chilling out in dad jeans, sporting a bristly mustache, and sticking to his principles, not with Bourne movie intensity, but with a sad, sardonic warmth meant to cover for a genuine sense of fear and hopelessness.
In a perfect world, we could go back in time and cast late-70s Donald Sutherland for this Gary Webb movie, or at least try and get Matt Damon to return to some of the ace mustache work he did in Steven Soderbergh's the Informant!, itself also a period piece set in the 1990s. Maybe you have a better idea? Please, go for it in the discussion below.
[image via Bluegrass Films/The Combine/Focus Features]