Opening Friday, the movie tells how, in 1996, San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) broke a story about how the CIA funded the Contras in Nicaragua by allowing crack cocaine to be sold in South Central Los Angeles. (It is based on books by Webb and Nick Schou.)
After the story broke, Webb became a superstar, but later his reporting was widely questioned, by his own paper, and other newspapers. He became unable to find work, and committed suicide in 2004.
"The challenge of making the film was trying to get all that in," says Cuesta, who recently visited The City.
"This is the story of how he was undone by his own bliss, and a man fighting an unwinnable war. I felt that's the track I want to go on. I want to be on his shoulders -- not 'who killed Gary Webb?' and it becomes just a conspiracy movie."
During filming, Cuesta -- who also made the movies "L.I.E." and "12 and Holding" as well as directed the TV series "Homeland" – continuously checked facts related to the story.
"I had cut some things. We were advised to cut them," Cuesta says. "We had a D.C. insider saying that the way to not suffer a 'killing the messenger' situation is to not say that. The movie's all about truth and justice. We were very careful not to change history."
In post-production, Cuesta found two public documents that, basically, allowed the CIA not to acknowledge its association with drug dealers in the 1980s. Webb had found these documents after the fact, and had them on hand when he was promoting his 1999 book "Dark Alliance."
"I put them up in my editing room, says Cuesta. "I blew them up, both reports. I was like, 'How can I get this into the film?' It's a big vindication, and it's a result of Gary's reporting. He's a watchdog. He made a great sacrifice, I think. He clearly connected some dots and put a spotlight on some truths. He can never prove it. How can you? There's no smoking gun when it comes to the CIA."
Cuesta says that, more than the CIA story, he wanted to tell the story about how the infighting in the world of journalism destroyed Webb, and how, as a result, the story was forgotten. "I knew the story, but I didn't know the extent of what happened to him," says Cuesta. "The biggest tragedy is the South Central part of this. They are the victims, and nothing was done."
IF YOU GO
Kill the Messenger
Starring Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta, Michael Sheen
Written by Peter Landesman
Directed by Michael Cuesta
Running time 1 hour 52 minutes