It’s astonishing that a documentary hasn’t been made about Gary Webb. In 1996, the San Jose Mercury News published his three-part series “Dark Alliance,” an investigation into what he alleged were ties between the CIA and Nicaraguan Contras during the 1980s. According to Webb, the CIA deliberately kept its hands off of massive Nicaraguan crack cocaine smuggling so that the profits would filter back to the Contras. A maelstrom of controversy flared up in the aftermath, with almost every other major newspaper in America taking an instinctive, reactive stance against Webb’s reporting. His life was utterly ruined, and he committed suicide a few years later. Many of his findings were later proven correct.
That’s doc gold right there, and yet no filmmaker has mined it. Instead, now Hollywood has beaten the nonfiction world to the punch, adapting Webb’s life and “Dark Alliance” into the new film Kill the Messenger, which stars Jeremy Renner as the journalist. So far, the movie has gotten decent reviews. But just because there’s no doc about Webb as of yet doesn’t mean there’s no good doc option out there. Many other whistleblowers and investigative reporters have gotten their due. Take, for instance, the story of Daniel Ellsberg.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, tells the story of how America learned of just how badly they’d been misled about the War in Vietnam. In 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned the Department of Defense to draw up an internal report: a comprehensive history of the Vietnam War. This report, United States — Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, laid bare the numerous lies the various administrations had told in starting and perpetuating the War. Ellsberg, then an analyst at the RAND Corporation, was one of the numerous people who worked on the report, and its revelations hastened him on a transformation towards a vehement anti-war stance.
Ellsberg’s conscience moved him to leak the report. In 1969, he covertly photocopied the entire thing (all 43 volumes of it), then handed it over to the New York Times in 1971. The Nixon administration attempted to suppress the story as the Times ran its series on the so-called Pentagon Papers, but the press resisted it. Eventually, the Supreme Court upheld the various newspapers’ right to report on the findings in the Papers. The government also tried to prosecute Ellsberg, but he walked free after the judge ruled a mistrial due to all the irregularities in the government’s case.
The Most Dangerous Man in America is an exciting piece of filmmaking, successfully sustaining an All the President’s Men-esque tone. What’s most striking about the documentary now, though, is how Ellsberg’s story compares to those of all the whistleblowers who have come after him. The government has gotten much more ferocious in cracking down on those who step out of line. Chelsea Manning has faced abhorrent treatment since handing over US military information to WikiLeaks. Edward Snowden has been holed up in Russia to avoid a similar fate for disclosing the NSA’s surveillance tactics.
Whereas the press defied the Presidency in reporting on the Pentagon Papers, when Webb published his investigation, it circled the wagons around the government and devoted much more energy to attacking him than it did to finding out whether he was on to something. Ellsberg himself has said that he’d be unlikely to get off so easily if he were to do the same thing today that he did in 1969.
So, as we wait for a doc on Webb, watch The Most Dangerous Man in America instead. Or see it along with Kill the Messenger if you like and study the contrast between these two true stories. Maybe even think about what our government keeps from us, and what we should be demanding from it in regards to transparency.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is available on DVD from First Run Features.