The Veronica Guerin Story

Film Recounts Irish Journalist's Battle With Drug Underworld

In Hollywood, so often the formula for success includes a happy ending. But sometimes, the story is so powerful that it's worth taking a risk.

Cate Blanchett plays the starring role in "Veronica Guerin," the story of a gutsy journalist who challenged some of the most powerful underworld drug lords.

Correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports on the dramatic portrayal of a daring woman who won some major battles, but lost her life.

Australian actress Cate Blanchett is more at home in the world of fiction than fact.

Her latest film, "Veronica Guerin," opening in U.S. theaters on Oct. 17, is the true story of the life and death of a 36-year-old Irish journalist who took on the drug dealers of Dublin and lost.

"She was incredibly charming, incredibly vibrant, and was a great reader of situations, which was why these criminals were able to open up," says Blanchett.

It's a different world for the talented and versatile actress, who won an Academy Award nomination for her role as Queen Elizabeth. She also played a society girl in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," and played an elf queen in the immensely popular "Lord of the Rings."

To play the part of Guerin, Blanchett moved to Ireland with her husband and their 1-year-old son.

"I knew her name, I knew about her death. But I've never read an article, didn't know what she looked like," says Blanchett, who studied up on Guerin's life before playing the part. "I did my homework. She did a lot of radio and television interviews, which I watched and studied."

The real Veronica Guerin also had a successful career along with a husband and a 6-year-old son. It was a full life, and she put it all on the line, covering Dublin's spiraling drug problem.

"From the time Veronica was a child, Veronica cared about people," says Guerin's mother, Bernadette. "If she saw that there was a niche there where she could help in some way, yeah, the crusader took over."

Guerin's fight to expose the anonymous drug lords led her right to the top man in the underworld, John Gilligan.

"They were both extremely successful at the time that their paths' crossed," says the film's director Joel Schumacher. "The more he threatened her, the more she threatened him. And so it went that way."

And it was the real-life relationship between Guerin and Gilligan that made him want to do this film: "I loathe bullies and she was a person who just wouldn't stand down for bullies. Unfortunately, she had to pay the major price for that."

"When those two egos clashed, it was sort of like a dance of death from there until the end for her," says Blanchett.

As Guerin continued exposing the drug barons, they started pushing back. First, a warning shot was fired through her living room window.

"I think the outrage is what she felt. It was even more fuel to her fire to keep going," says Blanchett.

"I took that as she did, as a sort of a warning. But Veronica wasn't going to be intimidated by any warning," says Guerin's mother, Bernadette.

Several months later, another shot was fired. And this time, they didn't miss.

"The night she was shot in the leg, it was really only when I saw Cate in that scene that I realized how horrific it was," says Bernadette.

But the bullet Guerin took in the leg would leave less of a scar emotionally than the vicious beating that soon followed.

"She came to me that evening," says Bernadette. "I never forget how she looked."

But Guerin didn't let up on Gilligan. She confronted Gilligan at his multi-million dollar estate, and Gilligan beat her savagely.

"I held her in my arms," recalls Bernadette. "She was in pain."

Guerin pressed assault charges against Gilligan, which may have cost her life.

"If you let them intimidate you, then they've won," says Blanchett.

On June 26, 1996, while Guerin was waiting at a traffic light, two drug associates of Gilligan pulled their motorcycle alongside Guerin's car and fired six shots. Her death was news worldwide, and it was a tragic end to a heroic life. The two were arrested and are serving life sentences. John Gilligan was acquitted of murder charges but is serving a 28-year sentence for selling drugs.

"If you wrote a script like this that was fictional, people would not have believed the events that actually happened," says Schumacher.

The movie opened in Dublin before a packed house.

"I think that was the most nerve-wracking experience of my professional life, being at the premiere," says Blanchett. "To get out of the car and realize that the cinema is completely and utterly filled with friends and family, and I'm just an Australian who's pretending to be her, I just thought, 'What have I done? What am I doing?'"

Veronica's mother, husband and son, now 14, were also in the audience.

The death of Veronica Guerin led to changing of several Irish laws that protected the identity of drug dealers and made it easy for them to hide the source of their enormous wealth. For a while, the drug lords went into hiding and crime went down in Dublin. But that's not the end of the story.

Critics say drug trafficking is no longer a priority for the police. But they say they don't have the manpower or the money to stop the drugs that are still entering the country – seven years after Veronica Guerin's death.

"I sometimes see Veronica's death as an exercise in futility," says Bernadette. "Veronica's work wasn't finished - as a mother, as a wife, sister, daughter, a journalist."