Kill the Messenger is a magic bullet meant to assassinate – or at least tarnish – the reputation of the CIA for their uber illegal association with Nicaraguan Contra rebels. Their anti-communist war effort was funded in part by *gulp* distributing crack cocaine to Central LA ghettos, a network Webb contends the CIA was complicit – or at least complacent – in facilitating. And like the projectile from any effective firearm, the path it travels is straight and narrow. Lead Jeremy Renner is monstrous good as big-in-his-britches San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, an ambitious journalist who sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong and ends up getting stung by the barbs of a well executed smear campaign, but director Michael Cuesta never lets the work truly take off. It’s a competent, A-to-Z biographical picture that misses the moments to really get in the head of a man pushed to the brink or elevate his tale into a thing of true artistry.
Cuestra spends the first half of the movie setting up Webb’s pending investigation and eventual damning story “Dark Alliance” that would win him the Bay Area Journalist of the Year Award, a celebration that lacked the fanfare he had once envisioned. Stumbling upon the trail without meaning to, Webb (Renner) is tipped off about a local drug kingpin with ties of the CIA. Upon digging into the shadowy association, Webb begins to connect dots that go deeper than he could have ever imagined and proposes that in order to wage an anti-Communist war that Congress had already voted against, Reagan and his inner circle conspired to fund the Nicaraguan Contras by knowingly allowing cocaine to be smuggled into the US and sold without penalty in underprivileged neighborhoods. According to Webb, this significantly worsened the crack cocaine problem that had become pandemic in African American communities in the 1980s.
Racing to find proof of this heinous allegations, Webb leaves behind wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt) and children to solidify sources in the thick of Central America. Not surprisingly, few officials are wont to rush forward and those that do aren’t necessarily in great standing (being drug dealers, slimy bankers or others involved in the black market lifestyle.) Upon publication of Webb’s record-setting article, outrage explodes across African American communities and general populations equally, until the spotlight is turned on Webb by a CIA scurrying to discredit everything about the man.
With a background in political slowburners like Homeland and Elementary and bloodlusters like Dexter and True Blood, Cuesta understands storytelling but has not adapted his style from the small screen to the big one perfectly. To get the bulk of the narrative onscreen, he’s simplified events done to the meat and potatoes version. We hit on each major point like SparkNotes, never really getting the time to dive into the intricacies that make everything so compelling. At just under two hours, it either feels too short or two long. An HBO miniseries would likely have been a better avenue. Without Renner’s captivating turn as Webb, the story would feel too much like a moving document; the cold hard facts of a national outrage turned media circus.
But in a time where the US has seemed as internally adversarial as ever (look at the recent outcry at Ferguson and prevailing Us vs. Them mindset of nationwide citizens and police forces), Cuesta’s telling of Webb’s story is worth remembering for the cold hard facts alone. Since his death – two gunshots to the head, deemed a suicide – Webb’s allegedly falsified charges against the CIA had been vindicated. While his controversial point ended up proven to be true, he wasn’t there to see his day of salvation. And this is the most important story of all: truth being met with brutality and the ease of which such can be covered up with the wave of a wand. Cuesta goes to show how the mere mention of conspiracy can sometimes be enough to transform an expert newsman into a theorist crackpot. That’s the tale here: man finds conspiracy, man validates conspiracy and man goes down in flames for it. It’s the equivalent of Loose Change confirmed ten years from now. Definitive proof that the moon landing was a hoax.
And yet for all the controversy Webb’s story whipped up, the end result is a man lying penniless in a hotel room with two bullets in his skull. Years later, official validation of Webb’s controversial story came and went like a summer breeze. The hive mind of Americana had moved onto a new scandal. Oval office blow jobs triumphed over one of the most damning government cover ups of all time. This is the story that Cuestra should have been telling, not something to leave until an end credits stinger.
A living reminder of our government’s readiness to desecrate an individual in order to escape ownership of past crimes, Kill the Messenger is a wake up call for a slacktivism-obsessed generation of American citizens. It’s a film about caged justice, about evil actually prevailing and the lengths to which our once great nation will go to validate each and every transgression of their past.
The picture this paints is not a pretty one. It’s one of deception distributed wholesale, of a blindly lead populace, of a mastermind behind the curtain pulling levers and blowing smoke to scare people into submission. Were the meek to inherit the Earth, we’d have a nation owed many inheritances. And the most frightening aspect of all is that the one behind the curtain is seemingly calling the shots unchecked. America the Great is as desperate, deranged and unpredictable as Oz. The fungus of corruption has infected her immune system. Nothing is left untarnished.
If she were a best friend, you’d send her kicking and screaming to a mental institution for delusions of granduer. If they were your employee, you’d fire them for flagrant misconduct. As a governing body that represents the will of 300 plus million people, truth, integrity and basic human values – the pillars upon which a nation should stand – have been relegated to the lowest wrung of the totem pole. The right to life, liberty and happiness comes with a big, blaring asterisk. The sad truth, when one man’s honest zeal is pitted against the reputation of one of the secret-coveting countries in the world, you better believe he’s going down in flames. This is the ugly picture that Kill the Messenger paints and the million discussions it will warrant afterwards. Though deceptively straightforward in its telling, it’s the aftermath of Michael Cuestra‘s film that should matter most.