Kill the Messenger
The pen may be mightier than the sword but, as related in Michael Cuesta's Kill the Messenger, whispered innuendo is more deadly than both. Imagine, if you will, All the President's Men with Robert Redford's Bob Woodward brought down by attacks on his journalism. That's the tale told by Kill the Messenger, in which a published newspaper series shining the light on ethically dubious practices of the CIA brings the full weight of that agency's influence to bear on the man who wrote the stories. Unlike in many fictional thrillers, the CIA doesn't dispatch black ops hit men to eliminate the journalist. Their approach is more practical but no less effective: destroy his credibility and eviscerate his character.
Kill the Messenger is based on a true story although, as with all motion picture adaptations of real-life events, license has been taken. By focusing on a specific period, the movie is able to have a quasi-upbeat ending, although it notes in a post-script caption that the protagonist, journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), committed suicide in 2004, seven years after the events portrayed in Kill the Messenger. One would have to be incredibly naïve to believe that his downfall was unrelated to his drastic final action.
Webb's investigation, conducted during the mid-1990s and printed in the relatively small daily, The San Jose Mercury News, lifts him high before bringing him low. It's the ideal that every investigative journalist dreams of: a story so big that it makes national headlines. What Webb doesn't count on, however, is how desperate his adversaries are to keep the story from gaining traction. As a confidential source tells him, their methods are to make the writer the story, thereby reducing what he has written to a footnote. Obfuscate and obscure and eventually it will go away. By the time Webb realizes the truth of this, he has gone too far down the path to retreat.
The story follows a trail that goes back to the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, the event that marred Ronald Reagan's second term as president. The CIA-backed Contras, the Nicaraguan "freedom fighters" who fought against Communism in their country, were funded through a variety of unlawful and unethical means. Webb uncovers an alleged link between the increase in inner city cocaine availability and money being funneled to the Contras. His assertion is that the CIA aided (or at least turned a blind eye to) the drug's entry into the United States and the money resulting from the sale of those drugs was delivered to the Contras. Bottom line: crack funded the Contras with the CIA's knowledge or abetment.
Although Cuesta has several feature films to his name, he is best known for his television work, which includes Six Feet Under, Dexter, and Homeland. His approach to this material is to employ a quasi-documentary look that involves a lot of handheld camera work (although the without much noticeable shaking). Kill the Messenger has a brisk pace. In fact, there are times when it moves so swiftly that it can be difficult to follow the details. The first half of the film follows the investigation that leads Webb to his conclusion. The final hour, saturated in a paranoia, details the means employed by the CIA to discredit the story, including dredging up an unsavory past event in Webb's life and feeding information to three major papers to allow them to go after Webb. Through it all, we see the personal and professional impact of this on a man whose naïve beliefs about the purpose of journalism is ground underfoot.
Jeremy Renner hasn't been this good since The Hurt Locker (although most of his output since then has been in popcorn movies - hey, the guy needs to make a living). He presents Webb as a good man with a host of blind spots and character faults. Once we recognize he's caught in a Shakespearean tragedy, we look for the tragic flaw and discover it to be the old stand-by of hubris - a belief that his status as a journalist will convey an immunity that those conversant with the way the CIA work argue against. Renner is ably supported by Mary Elizabeth Winsted as Anna Simons, his editor, and Rosemary DeWitt as his wife, Sue. A host of recognizable faces make single scene appearances: Michael Sheen, Robert Patrick, Ray Liotta, Michael K. Williams, Andy Garcia, Barry Pepper, Tim Blake Nelson, Gil Bellows, and Richard Schiff.
Kill the Messenger is compelling material but the recognition that the core of the narrative is based on true events gives it additional power. In light of today's climate of leaks and revelations, one can't help but wonder whether similar tactics have been employed (with less success) in recent years. Thus, while this is putatively a biography of Gary Webb, it asks central questions that have contemporary relevance and whose answers may not be forthcoming.