erik lundegaard

Movie Review: Kill the Messenger (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Why is it flat? Why doesn’t it quite work?

“Kill the Messenger” was directed by Michael Cuesta (“L.I.E.”), and written by Peter Landesman (the underrated “Parkland”), and it tells the true story of Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a good investigative reporter for a small newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, who stumbles upon a huge international story: that during the 1980s, in the middle of the “Just Say No” decade, the CIA ...

OK, what was the accusation again? Maybe that’s part of the problem. Even after seeing the movie, it’s still a bit murky.

Let me try. So while the Reagan administration was trading arms for hostages in order to illegally fund the Nicaraguan Contras, the CIA ... turned a blind eye toward Latin American drug suppliers who were funding the Contras? Abetted Latin American drug suppliers who were funding the Contras? Funneled cocaine into the U.S. in order to fund the Contras? I was never quite sure the extent of CIA involvement.

But at the least, blind eyes were involved. Vast hypocrisy was involved.

Too true to tell
The movie starts out not bad. Webb is doing a piece on drug forfeiture law—how property can be confiscated by the government without anyone being charged with a crime—when he gets a call from Coral Baca (an impossibly hot Paz Vega), whose boyfriend, Rafael Cornejo, is being prosecuted on drug charges. Kill the MessengerHer charge? “He sold drugs for the government.” She shows Webb a redacted court transcript and points him to Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez), a former drug supplier/Contra supporter, now DEA informant. But when Webb mentions Blandon to federal prosecutor Russell Dodson (Barry Pepper), the charges against Cornejo are quickly dropped—as Baca knew they would be. Webb has been used. But now he senses a bigger story in Blandon.

He follows him to the trial of L.A. crack kingpin Ricky Ross (Michael Kenneth Williams, doomed to play such roles), and convinces Ross’ attorney, Alan Fenster (Tim Blake Nelson), to delve into Blandon’s background during cross-examination. On the stand, Blandon admits that the U.S. government, or at least the CIA, was aware that he smuggled tons of cocaine into the country. This testimony leads Webb to drug kingpin Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia) in prison in Nicaragua, who points him to Swiss banker Hansjorg Baier (Brett Rice), also in Nicaragua. Then Webb goes to D.C.

There, he gets the usual warnings away from the story from low-level bureaucrats and shadowy agents. The best exchange is probably this:

CIA official: We’d never threaten your children, Mr. Webb.
Webb [stunned pause]: What did you say?

That’s nice: the denial of the threat serving as the threat. But the big line of the movie comes from government official Fred Weil (Michael Sheen), who tells him the story won’t get out, adding, “Some stories are just too true to tell.”

So what happens? Webb returns to California, writes his story anyway, and it goes national. He’s slapped on the back by his contemporaries. Then his life falls apart.

All the Insider’s Men
A quarter of the way through the movie, I thought, “This would be so much better if it had been directed by Michael Mann.” Three quarters of the way through, I thought, “Oh, it was. It was just called ‘The Insider.’

In “The Insider,” “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), helps draw out a corporate vice-president, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), to go on the record about a Big Tobacco scandal. But then CBS Corporate gets cold feet, Wigand is besmirched, and the news story becomes petty shit about Wigand. Bergman has to betray friends and associates in order to not betray Wigand. The two men win a battle that is everywhere else being lost.

In “Kill the Messenger,” Webb is both Bergman and Wigand, reporter and besmirched. He becomes the story. Because the L.A. Times is jealous it got scooped? Because the Washington Post, the newspaper of Woodward and Bernstein, is too close to the CIA? Both accusations are implied here. Webb’s editor gets cold feet. Corporate is called in. Lawyers are called in—to protect the paper, not Webb. He’s shuttled off to a smaller newspaper. Does his wife leave him? Does he leave her? All of this is murky, too.

What isn’t murky enough is our faith in Webb. The Mercury News doublechecks the story after the accusations, and Meneses denies he spoke to Webb while Baier can’t be found. But we saw Webb talking to Meneses, and we see Baier being kidnapped, so we know everyone else is wrong. Maybe if we’d been kept in the dark, too, or a little, it might’ve made the movie more interesting. We would’ve had something to wonder. Instead, Webb comes off as blandly forthright and heroic. He drinks a bit, smokes a little pot, had an affair in the past. But he’s a decent husband, a decent father. To be honest, it’s not a great performance by Jeremy Renner. It’s one of the few times I’ve found him dull.

I did like his reaction after the story was first printed. He didn’t act triumphant; he almost acted guilty. Because his family had been threatened if he ran with the story, and he ran with it anyway? As if his family didn’t matter? Not sure. But it added a touch of mystery to what was generally obvious.

Or familiar. I kept getting flashes of not only “The Insider” but “All the President’s Men.” Maybe this was inevitable. Or maybe the filmmakers were too enamored of these movies to properly make their own. But the courtroom scene with the CIA revelation from Blandon, with Webb the only reporter present? That’s like the courtroom scene with the CIA revelation from McCord, with Woodward the only reporter present. Or when Webb feels like he’s being followed into the parking garage? Compare with Woodward’s paranoia after the parking garage, or the nighttime golf-range scene in “The Insider.” Here it’s: “We got a call from corporate this morning.” There it’s: “Corporate has some questions.”

Who wins?
Too bad. Its subjects are worth contemplating: the War on Drugs; the national-security state; the back-biting, sensationalistic nature of the national media, which seems to hinder more than it helps. Early in the movie, Webb is asked for the secret to his reporting, and he responds, “I don’t know ... Don’t let the assholes win?” Here, they win. And they haven’t really stopped winning.

At least “Kill the Messenger,” set almost 20 years ago, about crimes almost 30 years old, opened my eyes to a contemporary danger: the NSA spy program. All along, I’ve basically given the scandal a post-9/11 shrug: “You’re one in 300 million. There’s safety in numbers. They won’t focus on you unless you need to be focused on.” Or—the movie made me realize—unless you’re Joe Wilson. Or Jeffrey Wigand. Or Woodward and Bernstein. Or Gary Webb. 

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Posted at 05:51 AM on Mon. Oct 20, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014  

COMMENTS

Ben Stocking wrote:

I took a job at the Mercury News shortly after Gary Webb's articles on a supposed crack-CIA connection appeared. I think the paper made a mistake when it published them. He never really nailed down his explosive contentions. The second-guessing from the L.A. Times and the Washington Post was entirely justified.

I had read Webb's articles several weeks before those bigger papers started poking holes them. As soon as I read them, I was surprised that they'd been published at all. In fact, when the Mercury-News offered me a job a couple months later, I was ambivalent about accepting it because the Webb stories made me question the paper's judgment.

As it turns out, I'm glad I took the job. The Merc was quite a good paper, with lots of talented journalists, most of whom had better judgment than Gary Webb. Many of them still work there.

By the way, it's wasn't a “small” paper at the time. Like most papers, it's been ravaged by the Internet and is a shell of its former self. But back in the '90s, It was one of the nation's most respected regional papers, serving the 10th-largest city in the country. It made the top-10 list of America's best papers more than once. Show some respect!

Thanks for publishing this review. I had no idea this movie had been made, and I'm looking forward to seeing it, if it's still playing. I expect the audience to be quite small.

Comment posted on Fri. Oct 24, 2014 at 10:15 AM

Erik wrote:

That perspective, your perspective, Ben, is exactly what's missing in the movie. It skirts over it. It makes the attack on Webb seem the result of weakness, jealousy and collaboration with the powers that be.

Comment posted on Fri. Oct 24, 2014 at 01:15 PM
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