While investigating the government's abuse of civil asset forfeiture, journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) discovers that the government has been sponsoring cocaine sales. Webb's investigation uncovers proof of this, which he publishes in a series of articles. Despite initial acclaim, however, things start to turn on Webb when the CIA begins a smear campaign against him.
List of tropes applying to the film:
- Downer Ending: Webb's reputation is ruined by both the CIA and vindictive, larger newspapers jealous of his success. A "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue reveals he committed suicide.
- Dude, Where's My Respect?: Webb is understandably pissed off when his highly dangerous investigation, which revealed a massive government conspiracy, is immediately met with doubt and skepticism because everyone's more inclined to believe the CIA, who have obvious reason to lie, than him, particularly his colleagues.
- Halfway Plot Switch: The first half focuses on Webb investigating the conspiracy and exposing it, while the second half centers around the fallout ruining his life.
- The Hero Dies: The "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue reveals Webb committed suicide in 2004.
- Intrepid Reporter: Webb.
- No Good Deed Goes Un Punished: Webb's reward for heroically exposing the conspiracy is to have his life ruined by the subsequent slander from both the CIA and various newspapers wanting to discredit him out of spite for having gotten such a massive story in spite of being a nobody. He does eventually get an award for Journalist of the Year, though.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Webb gives an epic one to both the newspapers who slandered him and believed the CIA's every word and his colleagues who hung him out to dry at the first sign of trouble at his award ceremony.