‘Kill the Messenger’ Pays Tribute to a Martyr for the Truth

Kill the Messenger movie poster

“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.

‘Rachel Getting Married’ is one of Jonathan Demme’s Best Films

Rachel Getting Married movie poster

One of the many things I have discovered about life is it is really easy to hate someone or be angry at them. As negative an emotion as it is, there is an unmistakable power from it which really makes you feel alive. At the same time, it is much harder to forgive that person for what they have done to you. You get so sick of someone getting the best of you to where you desperately don’t want to look like the fool. But eventually, it should become clear that the one person you really need to forgive most is yourself. This can be much harder than forgiving someone else, but it is necessary as it keeps you from sinking into the hideous swamp of bitterness which can eat you up. But can you forgive yourself when you have done something horrible and can’t you wipe away the cloud hanging over your existence because of what you have done? I would like to believe the answer is yes, but others may disagree.

Rachel Getting Married” is a movie about forgiveness, and the rough road people travel to get to it. It is also a movie about family and togetherness, and the joy of life. It almost moved me to tears the same way “Lars and the Real Girl” did as it deals with the saddest of things while surrounding itself in an atmosphere of love and much-needed togetherness. This is one of Jonathan Demme’s best movies as well as one of the very best of 2008. I really loved “Rachel Getting Married” and found myself wanting to hug all the characters in it. It is a movie of raw emotions, and I love seeing movies with this kind of power more often than not.

Anne Hathaway gives a phenomenal performance as Kym, the wild child of a Connecticut family who gets a vacation break from her current rehabilitation facility to go home for her sister Rachel’s wedding. It doesn’t take long to get an idea of how much of a “bad egg” she appears to be to everyone around her. As she goes into a convenience store to get a Pepsi, the female cashier behind the counter says, “Didn’t I see you on ‘Cops?’”

Kym is a full-blown drug addict and has been for several years, and while her family is happy to have her home, there are also raw emotions simmering just below the surface and waiting to come out into the open. We feel this tension from the very start, and it is illustrated in Hathaway’s face as we see her feeling like the wallflower at a party. While everyone is happy for the bride and groom, she is sullen and lost in a moment she cannot escape from. As the movie goes on, we come to see the reason for her self-destructive behavior and why she acts the way she does. I will not mention what it is here as it might take away from the emotional impact you will experience watching this movie.

This movie feels a lot different from others Demme has made in the past. He filmed the movie with high definition cameras to capture the movie on a more intimate level, and it feels like he really let the actors loose from start to finish. It is handheld camerawork going on here, so this will probably drive those who couldn’t stand all the shaky camerawork in “The Bourne Ultimatum” or “Cloverfield” crazy. While some people may experience motion sickness from this, I had no problem with it as the camerawork helped illustrate the emotionally fragile ground the characters are walking over, and how easily everything could come tumbling down.

What is so great about Demme’s direction is how he makes us feel like we really are attending the wedding along with these characters and sharing in the joys and sorrows of everyone involved. These characters feel so real, and it is so great to see no Hollywood artifice on display here. There have been so many big Hollywood movies dealing with families and marriage, and I find myself increasingly avoiding them. But the actions in “Rachel Getting Married” never felt staged for a second, and I loved that. Everyone in this movie feels like people we know from our own lives, and it connects us all the more strongly to what they go through.

“Rachel Getting Married” also, like all of Demme’s movies, has a very eclectic mix of music in it from the offbeat to the international. His movies don’t just have their own signature look, but their own significant sound. One character makes beautiful use of a Neil Young song as he sings it to another person. The audience I saw this with at Landmark Theaters in West Los Angeles were as silent as the characters onscreen during this moment, and I’ll never forget that.

I also loved how the soon to be married couple is an interracial couple, and no one ever brings this up at all. I guess none of the characters see it as an issue worth addressing. Hallelujah!

The script was by Jenny Lumet, and she gives her characters a vibrancy which elevates it from the couples we usually expect to see in movies like these. Her screenplay does tread familiar scenarios and storylines of the addict trying to go straight, but it finds its own voice and way of saying things to where everything feels fresh and new.

Demme always brings out the best in all the actors he has ever worked. There are many great performances to be had here, not just Hathaway’s. Rosemarie DeWitt plays Rachel, and she is a wonderful and real presence to be had in this movie. She goes from being so happy to seeing her sister Kym to being utterly exasperated and strung out that she is at home. It is clear that Rachel wants Kym to be well, but she constantly worries Kym will ruin the wedding in one way or another. Both Hathaway and DeWitt work really well off of each other as two sisters desperate to connect with one another despite the emotional damage between them. There’s a touching moment where Kym comes back from a rough night, and Rachel washes her clean in the shower as if she is washing her sins down the drain.

I also really liked Bill Irwin as Paul, Kym and Rachel’s dad, who is so happy to see his daughters under one roof, while at the same time harboring scars which will never fully heal. We also have Debra Winger, an actress we don’t see much of these days as the girls’ mother, Abby. She has great scenes with both daughters as she allows us to see beneath her seemingly calm exterior to the distrust she has had for Kym after all this time. The big scene between Hathaway and Wagner where the truth comes to a head is riveting and painfully raw as they each try to come to grips with the tragedy they both had a part in but are hesitant to take full responsibility for.

“Rachel Getting Married” is not just a triumph of acting, but also of writing and direction. All three elements come together to create a powerfully moving film about the flawed and fragile nature of humanity, and of the struggle for forgiveness. The movie has a very improvisatory feel to it and, despite the serious nature of the film, you cannot help but feel everyone had such a great time making it. You feel like you are with these families every step of the way, and you revel in their celebration of two families coming together as one. The reception near the end of the movie is one of ecstatic joy and happiness, even while some have wounds which take them out of the present.

But the person who carries this movie from beginning to end is Hathaway. Many see this as her escape from those “Princess Diaries” movies as she rids herself of the ever so clean image we have had of her. Truth be told, she has been doing this already with “Brokeback Mountain” and “Havoc,” but this should fully complete her transition to becoming an adult actress. All the Oscar talk she has been getting is justified. Kym is not an easily likable character, but Hathaway gives her a heart and soul and makes you care deeply about Kym all the way through. The moments where Hathaway does not say a word, her face does the acting and reveals a very uncomfortable soul trying to fit into a place which was once her home. She does brave and amazing work here, and she proves to be a dramatic force to be reckoned with.

“Rachel Getting Married” further shows how brilliant Demme is in getting to the wounded humanity of all the characters he observes. There is not one moment which feels faked in this movie, and it never really falls victim to any clichés that could easily tear it apart. This is another movie you don’t watch as much as experience, and I am always on the lookout for those. It also kept reminding me of the song “To Forgive” by The Smashing Pumpkins which kept playing in my head throughout:

“Holding back the fool again
Holding back the fool pretends
I forget to forget nothing is important
Holding back the fool again.”

Funny, I thought Billy Corgan was saying “forgive” instead of “forget.”

* * * * out of * * * *