Kill the Messenger

November 1, 2014
Jeremy Renner in 'Kill The Messenger' (2014)
Jeremy Renner in 'Kill The Messenger' (2014)

One might assume the public is willing to believe anything bad about the CIA, which has become a byword for clandestine criminality in the modern world, but Kill the Messenger suggests otherwise. It tells the true story of Gary Webb, an investigative reporter on the San Jose Mercury News, who breaks a once-in-a-lifetime scoop about the CIA’s involvement in a multi-million dollar scam that sells crack to poor black Americans to raise funds for counterrevolutionaries in Nicaragua.

Webb’s exposé was a blockbuster that would dominate the American media for weeks and win him a Pulitzer Prize, but it would also destroy his life. Not only did he pit himself against the power of the United States government and the secret service, he offended the major U.S. newspapers such as the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, who were incensed that a small-town rag beat them to the story.

The most disturbing part of this film is the way Webb is victimised by his peers who take the side of the establishment instead of the crusading journalist. It is a simple matter to turn their embarrassment at being upstaged into a cast-iron belief that Webb’s story must be false, misleading or incompetent.

The coverage soon shifts from the CIA’s alleged misdeeds to the character and motives of the journalist. It’s an appalling portrait of the degeneration of the American mainstream media, particularly the Washington Post, which broke the Watergate scandal in the face of immense political pressure. That fearless piece of reporting by Woodward and Bernstein was immortalised in Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976). Twenty years later the same newspaper would instinctively align itself with the government.

The role of Gary Webb is a breakthrough for Jeremy Renner, who is also listed as an executive producer in the credits. Renner obviously feels passionate about the part and gives it everything. Let’s hope his success in this film and American Hustle, means he never again has to participate in vomitous trash such as Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2103).

Webb’s character is both idealistic and flawed. The only reason he is working at the San Jose Daily News is that he has been obliged to ditch his previous job in Ohio after a tragic affair with a colleague left his career and his marriage in a shambles. He is trying hard to be the perfect family man and regain the trust of his wife, Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt).

Regardless of his personal failings Webb has never deviated in his determination to seek out and report the truth. When a drug dealer’s girlfriend, played by Paz Vega, tips him off to CIA involvement in the lucrative market for crack, he knows he has the biggest story of his career. It is, however, a dangerous game. He travels to Nicaragua to interview an imprisioned drug baron (Andy Garcia) and a Swiss banker (Brett Rice), before ambushing a lawyer in Washington D.C. (Michael Sheen), who warns him about the firestorm that lies ahead.

The success of Webb’s exposé sends shockwaves through the media and makes him an overnight celebrity. It stirs up anger and political agitation in the ghettos, revealing a government that is willing to exploit its poorest citizens to fuel an ideological vendetta in Central America.

It seems for a moment that Webb’s newfound prominence will act as a shield against powerful enemies, but this position of strength is gradually undermined. As the sources of his story are discredited or eliminated Webb’s credulity is put under the microscope. His editors develop cold feet and begin to backtrack. Soon he is being shunted from the office into a suburban backwater where he can’t cause any trouble.

The climactic scene occurs when Webb steps up to accept a ‘Journalist of the Year’ award conferred before his fall from grace. It’s a tense, gripping moment in which all the contradictions of his predicament hang like a cloud over his audience.

Kill the Messenger has the makings of a great movie but it never manages to transcend the mere mechanics of story-telling. Director Michael Cuesta, known for his work on the Homeland series, still seems to be filming for television rather than the big screen. We watch the action unfold with more detachment than would seem possible, given the nature of the subject matter. Despite Renner’s committed performance one may read this film as the tale of a man driven to self-destruction by his own vanity and foolishness. This still qualifies as tragedy but one cannot lay the blame solely on those dark forces that play havoc with human destiny.

I saw Webb as a heroic figure but my more pragmatic companion thought he was a selfish idiot who put himself and his family in danger for front page glory. This verdict may be true in the strictest sense, but journalism will always need idealists and egotists to challenge the presumptions of governments prepared to trample civil liberties in the name of an abstract good.

Kill the Messenger
Directed by Michael Cuesta
Written by Peter Landesman, after books by Nick Shou and Gary Webb
Starring Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie Dewitt, Michael Sheen, Ray Liotta, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Andy Garcia, Paz Vega
USA, rated M, 112 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 1st November, 2014.