Kill the Messenger

Kill the Messenger photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgGary Webb was an American investigative reporter best known for a series of 1996 articles that detailed CIA involvement in cocaine trafficking into the US. He worked for the San Jose Mercury News, a small newspaper that gained significant notoriety that year when he alleged that drug traffickers in Nicaragua had sold and distributed crack cocaine in Los Angeles during the 1980s, and that drug profits were regulated to fund the CIA-supported Contras. He never asserted that the CIA was actively directing the drug dealers, but rather that they were aware the money was being raised and managed to subsidize them.

The resulting fallout was major. This chronicle suggests that the larger papers were embarrassed that they had been scooped on such a significant news story by a much smaller paper: The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times tried to debunk the link between the Contras and the crack epidemic to discredit Webb. The account also suggest the CIA applied pressure on Webb and his family to remain silent. Webb’s key sources then disappeared mysteriously. Others later contended that Webb had lied about what they had said to him. The San Jose Mercury News backed away from the story, then threw him under the bus.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Kill the Messenger turns Gary Webb into a hero. He is presented as a crusader for accountability that divulged a reality that was too hot to handle. As a reporter he had uncovered what he believed to be unequivocal evidence linking the illegal business of crack cocaine in the U.S to the money used to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. He simply wanted to unveil that truth. It should be noted that there are still some who contend that Gary Webb was a disgraced journalist. However they will not find that point of view here. Peter Landesman’s script is adapted from Gary Webb’s own 1999 book Dark Alliance and Nick Schou’s 2006 book Kill the Messenger. His screenplay critically indicts both the U.S. government as well as the news correspondents of the day. The competing papers launched a smear campaign against him ultimately ending his career. They do not come out good here and your outrage will rest on how those revelations surprise you.

Kill the Messenger is an interesting tale in two parts. The first half recounts Webb’s discovering the evidence. The second half depicts the aftermath of that story. What makes this so watchable is Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of newspaper reporter Gary Webb. He is really good at getting the audience to like him. We feel the unbearable tension that our hero endures as he is threatened directly and indirectly. The impending sense of doom never seems very far way. We share in his growing fear for his own safety amidst his desire to expose the truth. The best scenes concern him and his family. In particular Rosemarie DeWitt as his wife and Lucas Hedges as his son, provide another facet that gives Gary Webb more depth. They imbue his character with flaws that are somewhat unexpected. After all, we have seen this before. All the President’s Men is an example of the crusading journalist railing against the system. The difference however is where Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were celebrated as heroes at the time, Gary Webb was given a much different reception.


14 Responses to “Kill the Messenger”

  1. That he was. A *much* different reception.

    Good work man, I still have not come up with a review for this yet and I think I saw this over two weeks ago! I need to quit stalling. I think it’s one of those that’s gonna be hard to describe without any major reveals or spoilers. A solid film, no doubt. Jeremy Renner is as likable as ever as Gary Webb


    • Oh my gosh. I know exactly what you mean, I felt bad because it took me a week to get this review out. Mostly because I’ve been seeing 3-4 movies a week now (awards season). I know, first world problems. 😆

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lol, indeed. Unfortunately there’ll be more belt-tightening on my end in the coming weeks. A real pity, too, because this is precisely when movies start to become really good. That said, I’ll find time to see the necessities: Foxcatcher, Interstellar, Nightcrawler, Unbroken, etc.


      • Please add Birdman to that list. Wow.


  2. I liked the film but lowered my rating of it because – we never got to a point about the truth of the story. Instead as Mark points out – the second half of the film focuses on what happened to Webb himself. There’s no dispute about how well Renner handled the role, or how the film grabbed your attention.

    I wondered why this film only opened in 370 odd theaters in the USA. That seems quite low as compared to films that opened wide (between 2000 and 3000 theaters) or films just below that.

    Makes one wonder – and assume the truthful reality of the crack cocaine distribution and the earmarking of the funds , as opposed to it being a stroy, that after being told, would result in what happened to Webb.


    • The release of films often gets me a little miffed. Here we have a solid, if not spectacular, film that only played in 427 theaters at its widest release. Meanwhile a generic romance like The Best of Me plays in nearly 3,000. I know these decisions are based on monetary reasons but it just seems misguided.


  3. A movie that I felt more connected to, probably because I too am a journalism. And while I admit that the movie isn’t perfect, it still has a lot of interesting points about the world of journalism that really got to me. Good review Mark.


  4. There’s a whole Sons of Anarchy plot line that relates to a modern version of this.


  5. I thought this was interesting. Never heard of this story, so it captured me. I like Jeremy Renner so I already had some excitement for this. It was pretty good. Had a few touching moments too. 3 stars.


  6. For some reason I didn’t hear anything about Kill the Messenger and I wasn’t familiar with this true story. Based on your description, it seems like a very interesting film though. I’m not a big fan of Jeremy Renner, but it sounds like he turns in a great performance in this movie. Maybe I’ll check it out at some point.


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