Curiosity killed the cat, and all of the good journalists along with it.
I was just a kid when Gary Webb broke news on the Contra-cocaine scandal. I don’t remember it. My recollection of the 90s reeks of the Clinton fiasco and not much else. As we learn in the epilogue of Kill the Messenger, the government fully admitted to playing a significant role in drug trafficking to support proxy wars in Nicaragua – it just took them a few years to cop to it. And when they did, they released all of their documentation amidst the Lewinsky case as a means of burying by distraction. I haven’t heard about it since: not in the news and not in school. Their plan worked.
Jeremy Renner plays Gary Webb just right. He exhibits all of the neutral virtue of journalism. His interest is in the truth; he reports the facts as he finds them with an eye toward sharing what he can with the public. The result is taxing as he bears the weight of major crime stories on his shoulders. Through Renner’s earnest face, he sees merit in exercising our First Amendment right to a free press.
Renner has only gotten better over the years. I knew long ago that he had the chops to pull off meatier roles (see The Hurt Locker or The Town for the best examples) but it’s only recently that he’s shed his action hero typecasting for those smaller gigs. He played an incredible drug dealer for his guest part on Louie, and with Kill the Messenger, he makes a compelling argument for a place among the upper tier of dramatic actors working today.
His performance becomes more complex as Webb’s story about CIA-backed drug smuggling – first printed in a local California paper – starts to gain momentum. He worries with his wife for the safety of their family as the report attracts even more attention than his usual drug bust articles. The powers that be quickly move in to smother his article and the paranoia that surrounds important journalism begins to seep into his daily life.
Government agents appear like something out of The Matrix of The Triplets of Belleville, robotic and silent, harassing him with threats, intimidation and illegal searches. I haven’t been that afraid of human characters in a film in a long time, due in no small part to the fact that these agents represent real world entities. This depiction of dehumanized black suits is a 2-dimensional take on the government from director Michael Cuesta and writer Peter Landesman, but the imagery was enough to plant me firmly in Webb’s shoes. Nathan Johnson’s haunting musical cues only emphasize this point.
The film features a remarkable cast for its $5M budget. The talented Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar on The Wire) appears in a fleeting cameo as an alleged drug dealer, while Andy Garcia plays a Nicaraguan drug kingpin. Rosemarie DeWitt plays Webb’s wife, Sue, and delivers and affecting but underutilized performance. Ray Liotta also shows up as a Deep Throat-like informant, although his brief but awfully deadpan performance continues to indicate (following The Identical) that the once-distinguished actor has lost some of his mojo.
However, it’s Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Holes) as lawyer Alan Fenster who sticks out among the supporting cast. The actor’s deep understanding of comic timing lends a lighter air to his scenes. Kill the Messenger is anything but a comedy, yet I found myself smiling every time he delivered his lines. You look forward to moments like that when a movie is this dead set on bleak reality.
Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) proves more than capable as the cinematographer for Kill the Messenger. His handheld approach works with a story of about reporting, and despite a few interesting 360 degree revolving shots, his work never becomes kinetic enough to distract from the story. We don’t get much in the way of symbolism; a shot of Webb next to a cement pillar might suggest his that his democratic principles makes him a “pillar” of society, but it’s not overt enough to warrant investigation. All told, Bobbitt’s reluctance to go just a bit further with his use of framing and deeper meaning keeps the film a step behind recent thrillers like A Most Wanted Man.
The film also suffers from its straightforward narrative. For those not aware of what happened in the 90s with regard to the “war on drugs,” we learn the full extent of the conspiracy about halfway through the film. From there, the film shifts to Webb as he struggles to maintain his integrity, a character arc we’ve seen in other films. This is the problem with films based on true stories: they are bound by history.
Still, its detriment is also its asset. The story may not take hairpin turns in the third act the way we might expect of a fictional film, but Kill the Messenger thrives on its truth. It wants you to understand that this isn’t some fanciful conspiracy mystery written by Tom Clancy. The CIA-backed drug war was real, and once we found out, the whole country collectively shrugged its shoulders. Retrospect can be infuriating.
I appreciate Cuesta’s straightforward approach to the story. His background directing and producing Homeland means he has a good grasp of thriller narrative, but that show has never rested on any semblance of reality. For the story of Gary Webb, Cuesta realigns his style accordingly.
As the film comes to a close, we are given a small text-based epilogue about the fallout from Webb’s story. We learn he was found dead in his apartment in 2004 after two gunshots to the head, and that his death was ruled a suicide. The movie makes no judgement about that last fact. Cuesta leaves the audience to come to their own conclusions.
For me, the real crime in Kill the Messenger is the lack of solidarity among journalists. According to Cuesta and Landesman, internationally-acclaimed publications we still read today are deeply compromised to the point where it’s actually detrimental to take anything they say about the government seriously. Webb’s story quickly becomes too much for them to handle and they pressure his paper to publish a retraction.
I’ve never want to slap a bunch of editors as much as I did watching this movie. Having worked at several publications myself, I know how important that bond between writers and editors is. Your editor is your lifeline to the rest of the paper. They are your guide to better writing and better ethics. And tough love aside, if you’re in the right, they need to have your back. Always.
But what happens when you say the right thing about the wrong person? What can you do when your guide to the news world throws you under a bus to save themselves? It is unconscionable, and Kill the Messenger confirms my terrible feeling that sort of thing happens all the time.
So that’s what happened to investigative journalism.
Movie Verdict: Win