Review: Kill the Messenger


Kill the Messenger

'Tis the season for dark dramas, and Kill the Messenger may be this year's darkest, a film all the darker because it's based on a demoralizing true story.

The titular messenger is Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a San Jose Mercury News investigative reporter who in 1996 writes a series of articles alleging a link between the CIA and Nicaraguan cocaine smugglers in the 1980s. According to Webb's Dark Alliance series, the CIA knew that huge amounts of Nicaraguan coke were sold as crack cocaine in Los Angeles, and the profits were funneled back to the Contras, CIA-backed rebel groups fighting to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.

Webb does not allege that the CIA was directly involved in smuggling or selling crack. Instead, he says the agency aided the Contras by looking the other way, withholding evidence from the Justice Department and Congress, and shielding the smugglers and dealers from prosecution. Webb also alleges that the Nicaraguan cocaine sparked the crack epidemic that spread to many U.S. cities.

The Dark Alliance series is extremely controversial, of course. Predictably, the CIA denies everything and tries to paint Webb as a small-time reporter who fabricated a wild conspiracy story to get his big break. More surprising are the media reactions: The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Times and many other media outlets vilify Webb, discrediting his story as poorly researched and mostly speculative. Webb's own newspaper also backs away from much of the story, hanging Webb out to dry rather than defending him. Kill the messenger they certainly do.

Kill the Messenger focuses on Webb, following the much-maligned journalist from the moment the CIA-Contras story falls into his lap (he learns about it from the wife of a local drug dealer). As Webb develops the most important story of his career, his investigation takes him from the mean streets of Los Angeles to the meaner halls of power in Washington, with a harrowing trip to the Nicaraguan jungles as well. Like any ambitious reporter in any movie about ambitious reporting, Webb tests the patience of his editor, Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and the Mercury News executive editor, Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt).

Kill the Messenger portrays Webb as equally dedicated to career and family (he's married with three kids); as expected, balancing his personal and professional lives isn't always easy. (With its constant deadlines, unpredictable hours and occasional threats to personal safety, investigative reporting doesn't mix well with marriage and parenthood.) Things get especially dicey between Webb and his wife, Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt), when The Dark Alliance blows up and Webb becomes a media sensation for all the wrong reasons.

It probably goes without saying that Kill the Messenger is relentlessly intense, but I'll say it anyway because the movie is almost agonizingly so. It's a very serious and cynical movie full of very serious and cynical accusations, depicting America's major commercial news outlets as government lapdogs that would rather report the party line than seek the truth and rock the boat. From Kill the Messenger's point of view, the media are all about groupthink and greed. When the CIA refutes Webb's claims and makes him the story, the Fourth Estate happily falls in line. Every outlet from the New York Times to CNN hops on the government bandwagon and tells the same story -- Webb is an opportunistic hack who can't be trusted -- with little if any journalistic skepticism. The easy route (relying on government sources rather than investigating their claims) is also the more profitable one; mainstream consumers of "news" would rather watch a messenger get killed than follow a complicated story about a government scandal involving foreign drug dealers.

Its gravitas and intensity aside, Kill the Messenger is slickly produced and immensely entertaining, telling a very relatable and personal tale about a journalistic everyman taking on the system and suffering the consequences. Webb is a fully drawn, realistically imperfect character, a crusader but not a saint. He's a methodical reporter, but a somewhat reckless soul who releases his tension by riding motorcycles at terrifying speeds; his past also holds a dark secret or two. This recklessness casts a faint shadow of doubt on his journalistic integrity, lending Kill the Messenger a bit of balance and keeping things interesting until the end. (For more about Webb, consult the appropriately thorough Wikipedia article about him. But to avoid spoilers, don't read the article until you've seen the film.)

Renner is at his best when he plays coolly focused, slightly rebellious characters in extreme situations, such as Sgt. William James in The Hurt Locker. He's therefore terrific in Kill the Messenger and a natural to play Webb, whose cool focus wears thin when everyone is trying to scare him away from doing his job. Renner is believable as both an affable dad and a fierce reporter, although his performance is more interesting when he's chasing a story than when he's hanging out with his kids. The film's other performances are just as solid, especially Winstead as Webb's supportive but skeptical editor and DeWitt as his no less supportive wife.

Kill the Messenger is one of this year's most important films, a movie worthy of an Oscar nod for Renner and writer Peter Landesman (Parkland). Commercial success may be harder to come by; while Kill the Messenger tells a gripping story, it may be a story audiences still don't want to hear. Which is a shame, because messengers like Gary Webb deserve better.

I've spent a lot of time

I've spent a lot of time thinking about Webb (I called Ceppos at the Mercury News and spoke with him on the day Webb died), and a lot of time thinking about this movie. I reviewed the movie in e-mails right after seeing it. I am extremely impressed and pleased with the review Don Clinchy has here. I hope it will motivate people to go see the movie. Because the movie is likely to be--for many viewers anyway--a downer, I'm afraid it might not get the word-of-mouth promotion it deserves. It is, to be sure, a painful movie; but its pain is something that can make us more realistic.