“The widespread use of drugs is a symptom of a sick society. The war on drugs is bullshit. Especially since the CIA is one of the biggest dealers around.”
-David Byrne in 1992
I don’t think it’s any secret our government, let alone any government in the world, was at one time or another complicit in drug dealing. It’s not like we don’t treat as if it’s no big thing, it’s just that we have gotten so used to it to where many don’t bother to acknowledge or do anything about it. But one man, Gary Webb, did not hesitate to expose the CIA for its involvement in drug smuggling back in the 1980’s, and he ended up paying the ultimate price for telling the truth.
“Kill the Messenger” is one of many movies which is “based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events,” but it deals with a story which needs to be told. Gary Webb was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, a newspaper not known for doing international stories until he came along. We watch as he stumbles across a story dealing with the shady origins of the crack epidemic which spread throughout the nation’s inner cities, particularly in South Central Los Angeles. His investigation into the matter led him to discover how, in order to raise money for the fight against the Nicaraguan Sandinista Government, the CIA supported the cocaine smuggling of top members of Nicaraguan Contra Rebel organizations. When Webb published his articles on this story, which later became the basis for his book “Dark Alliance,” he won a lot of praise for his work, but then the roof caved in.
It’s no surprise the CIA came down hard on Webb as they began to conduct a vicious smear campaign on him which included veiled threats against his life. But what really stunned me was how rival newspapers went after him with a vengeance as he broke the story before they ever had a chance to investigate it. The Washington Post in particular hated how Webb broke the story as they were known for being first to report stories on the United States government, and their attacks on his credibility became more about protecting their own integrity as opposed to pursuing the truth. Taking this into account, it gives the audience an idea of just how cutthroat the newspaper business can be. As for myself, it makes me wonder if there is any business on this planet which is not cutthroat.
Playing Webb in “Kill the Messenger” is Jeremy Renner, and his performance here ranks among his best. He doesn’t try to make Webb a heroic character but instead a regular, ordinary man who does the job he is hired to do, and he does it really well. Renner makes us revel in Webb’s victories and feel for him when the whole world, even his own newspaper, suddenly turns against him. Not once does the actor overplay his role, and that he is able to keep Webb so grounded here is one of the things which makes “Kill the Messenger” work as well as it does.
Rosemarie DeWitt also shines as Webb’s wife, Susan. This could have been a throwaway role with DeWitt being left with little to do other than beg her husband to stop pursuing this story, but the actress makes Susan into the conscience Gary desperately needs through the toughest of times. Like Renner, DeWitt keeps the character grounded in a reality we can all relate to as she tries to make sense of a situation spiraling out of her husband’s control.
Directing “Kill the Messenger” is Michael Cuesta who also directed the powerful “L.I.E.” which the MPAA just had to give an NC-17 rating to for the most inexplicable of reasons. Could he have gone deeper with the subject matter that inspired this movie? Perhaps, but he makes a very good case for why we should be infuriated over why people were more interested in burying Gary Webb than they were in confronting how our government knew about and participated in the drug dealing being conducted on American soil.
Is this movie historically accurate to what actually happened in real life? I don’t know and I don’t care. Most movies based on true stories take liberties with the truth for dramatic purposes, and I doubt “Kill the Messenger” is an exception to that. What matters to me is this movie tells a compelling story which keeps you involved from start to finish, and Cuesta has given us just that. For those interested in getting to the absolute truth, try reading Webb’s “Dark Alliance” and Nick Schou’s book of the same name. This movie was based on both of those books.
“Kill the Messenger” joins the company of movies like “The Insider” and “Good Night and Good Luck” which are about people who decide to tell the truth and get punished for it in varying degrees. These days it seems like there are larger numbers of people who are more interested in their own monetary gain than they are in exposing wrongdoings. Webb’s story is one which deserves to be told as it is about a man whose job was to get to the truth of things, and the fact he was dragged through the coals because of that is one of the many unnecessary reminders of how unfair life can be. But in the end, he was vindicated, and this movie stands as a strong tribute to what he accomplished.
* * * ½ out of * * * *
Check out the video below where I interviewed Jeremy Renner and Rosemarie DeWitt.