Dying to Tell the Story

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Somewhere inside each journalist live two characters, a crusader and a gossip. They want to know the story, and they have to tell it — because it's important and because it's such great dish. Often these impulses result in nothing more elevated than a refried handout or a disposable movie review. But some newspeople risk more than their self-esteem to keep the public informed. At least a dozen reporters have been killed covering the current Iraq engagement; 148 have died in Russia of unnatural causes since 1992. And usually these deaths go largely unmourned, sadly unnoticed.

The life, death and legacy of Veronica Guerin are different. In Ireland her murder — believed to have been ordered by drug thugs she had exposed — cued mourning of an intensity that rivaled Princess Diana's the following year. Guerin (rhymes with cheerin') has been the subject of two films, the fictionalized When the Sky Falls, with Joan Allen in the lead role, and now a smartly mounted and modulated biopic, Veronica Guerin, starring Cate Blanchett.

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An investigative reporter who in 1994 joined the Sunday Independent, Ireland's top newspaper, Guerin made headlines with stories about Dublin's underworld. Within months of her first scoops, assailants fired gunshots into the cottage she shared with her husband and their son. In 1995 she confronted drug lord John Gilligan, who smashed her face in. The next day he told her, "If you write a word about me, I will find your boy and kidnap him and rape him. I am going to kill you if you write a word about me." (Of course, she published the threat.) Guerin was shot and killed in her car at a traffic light on June 26, 1996, two days before she was to speak at a London conference on "Dying to Tell a Story: Journalists at Risk."

Veronica Guerin emerges under unusual auspices. Its producer is ubiquitous uber-mogul Jerry Bruckheimer, its director Joel Schumacher, a Hollywood stalwart whose work ranges from grit (Tigerland) to glitz (Batman & Robin). Screenwriters Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donaghue are also Americans. Yet the film resists the tugs of Hollywood melodrama. It builds a pyramid of culpability — the street thugs who push the drugs; the middlemen who cover their malefactions with bluff charm ("We don't sell drugs," protests one, played by Ciaran Hinds, "we're just ordinary decent criminals"); and the top dog (Gerald McSorley, stern and scary as Gilligan), who comes out of hiding only to brutalize the innocent.

Anchoring the enterprise, and pushing it from good newsgathering to movie art, is Blanchett. She illuminates every moment onscreen, shows the intelligence and vitality in journalistic curiosity, fills out the facts of the case with humor and humanity. Her Veronica is a perky soul who is nonetheless weighed down by a reporter's "burden to know." She carries the same awful responsibility as a good cop or soldier: to make things better, whatever the cost. Veronica Guerin paid with her life. This film would make her proud, for it is ultimately not depressing but — we say without a shred of journalistic irony — inspiring.