In the new drama Kill the Messenger (out today) Jeremy Renner stars as Gary Webb, a small-time journalist (easily supporting a family of five in a realllly comfortable home, but let’s put such nitpicks aside) who stumbles upon a giant story of CIA-sanctioned drug smuggling, corruption, and cover-ups, and ends up taking on not only the government, but his bosses. It’s not the first time we’ve heard this story; Renner’s film is the latest in a long tradition of movies celebrating the journalist on a mission, so we’ve assembled the best and worst of those newsmen and women, ranked by righteousness.
Ace in the Hole JOURNALIST: Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) STORY: A New Mexico man, trapped in a cave. DANGER FACTOR: None. Tatum spends the whole movie safely on the ground, figuring out new ways to exploit his subject and use it to build his over-and-done career back up. RIGHTEOUSNESS RATING: 1. The dictionary definition of “righteousness” is “the quality of being morally right or justifiable”; Tatum is pretty much the polar opposite of that.
Absence of Malice JOURNALIST: Megan Carter (Sally Field) STORY: The investigation of a Miami liquor wholesaler with vague mob ties. DANGER FACTOR: Minimal. In fact, her reporting places pretty much everyone but herself in danger. RIGHTEOUSNESS RATING: 3. While not as cravenly exploitative as Ace’s Tatum, Carter is a reckless (and pretty lousy!) reporter, who runs rumors and burns sources, causing Paul Newman’s Michael Gallagher tremendous personal harm and driving a woman to suicide. Whoops!
The Paper JOURNALIST: Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton) STORY: The murder of two out-of-town businessmen in Williamsburg. DANGER FACTOR: Low. As metro editor of the New York Sun, Hackett’s only on-the-ground discomfort comes during a tense interview with a tough cop in a precinct bathroom. But when he faces off against his immediate boss (Glenn Close) to stop a bad story from going out, she makes the confrontation physical — and it seems like she could take him. RIGHTEOUSNESS RATING: 4. Most of The Paper concerns Hackett’s personal and career woes — but he does want to get this story right (and make sure two black teens aren’t smeared in the process), and any newspaper man who still trots out the phrase “Stop the presses!” gets a lifetime pass.
The China Syndrome JOURNALIST: Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) STORY: A perilously unstable nuclear power plant. DANGER FACTOR: Medium. Wells’ life isn’t really in danger (aside from the whole risk-of-nuclear-meltdown thing), but her source (Jack Lemmon) is run off the road on his way to a hearing and shot by police at the plant. RIGHTEOUSNESS RATING: 5. Kimberly’s evolution into righteousness is one of the film’s primary arcs — she’s initially just at the plant to do a bit of a puff piece, but she ends up risking her career and bucking authorities to get the story out there.
The Pelican Brief JOURNALIST: Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) STORY: The assassinations of two Supreme Court justices. DANGER FACTOR: High. After Grantham teams with law student Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts), whose titular brief holds a potent theory explaining the deaths, she warns him that “everyone I’ve told about the brief is dead.” “I’ll take my chances,” he replies, and true to her word, the pair is nearly killed by a car bomb. RIGHTEOUSNESS RATING: 6. Grantham plays his morals close to the vest — he mostly seems like an ace reporter who knows a good story when he sees it — but Washington’s inherent righteousness helps fill in the blanks.
The Insider JOURNALIST: Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) STORY: A former tobacco researcher, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), is blowing the whistle on the industry. DANGER FACTOR: Low, though there are death threats and other repercussions against Wigand. RIGHTEOUSNESS RATING: 7. When Wigand’s portion of Bergman’s 60 Minutes segment gets buried, he takes on the network (and its would-be purchaser, Westinghouse), leaks the story to the New York Times, and walks away from his job in disgust.
Salvador JOURNALIST: Richard Boyle (James Woods) STORY: The Salvadoran Civil War. DANGER FACTOR: Considering that government troops are rolling around and executing people in the streets, pretty damn high. RIGHTEOUSNESS RATING: 7. He enters Salvador cynical — he’s mostly there as a freelancer looking for good pictures to dig himself out of a hole of debt and unemployment. But the longer he’s there, the more he becomes a crusader, determined to share the truth about the Central American conflict.
Kill The Messenger JOURNALIST: Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) STORY: The smuggling and selling of cocaine in the US to fund the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras. DANGER FACTOR: High. Webb’s movements are tracked, his house is targeted, and his children are threatened by the CIA (in typical double-talk form: “We’d never threaten your children, Mr. Webb,” one of them says, out of nowhere.) RIGHTEOUSNESS RATING: 9. When a smear campaign follows his bombshell, Webb roundly refuses to back down from authorities, his editors, or even his fellow journalists. And when he ends up basically unemployable, he ends up taking rather drastic measures.
Good Night, and Good Luck JOURNALIST: Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) STORY: Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunt, promising to root out Communist infiltration of the United States government. DANGER FACTOR: Low; Murrow and producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) mostly endanger their ratings and their jobs. RIGHTEOUSNESS RATING: 10. Murrow’s eloquent on-air takedowns of the junior senator are pretty much “righteousness” in spoken word form.
All The President’s Men JOURNALISTS: Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) STORY: The burglary, and subsequent cover-up, of the Democratic National Headquarters at Watergate by dirty-tricks artists within the Nixon administration. DANGER FACTOR: High. The reporters are followed, their homes and phones are bugged, and they come to fear for their own safety. RIGHTEOUSNESS RATING: 10. As editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) puts it, “We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”