‘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.

Exclusive Interview with Gusmano Cesaretti about ‘Take None Give None’

Take None Give None poster

2015 proved to be a great year for documentaries with unforgettable ones like “Amy,” “An Honest Liar” and “The Wolfpack.” Now there’s another terrific documentary to check out called “Take None Give None” which is about the Chosen Few, an outlaw motorcycle club based in South Central Los Angeles. Directed by Gusmano Cesaretti, a producer on many of Michael Mann’s films, it chronicles how this motorcycle club, the first multi-racial club of its kind, formed and is bound by the strength of their brotherhood. The documentary also follows the club’s struggles as they deal with the LAPD which raided their clubhouse and unfairly branded them as a criminal organization in the media.

“Take None Give None” had a special screening at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los AngelesMuseum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and it was sold out and filled with people of all kinds as well as members of the Chosen Few. When it ended, one of the club’s members stood up and said, “Tell people about this movie so that they can see who we really are.” This was met with a thunderous applause from everyone in attendance.

I got to speak with Cesaretti over the phone about “Take None Give None” which he filmed with co-director Kurt Mangum over a three-year period. Cesaretti described how he became acquainted with the Chosen Few, how he managed to get an interview with one of the LAPD cops who went undercover to infiltrate the club, and of how working with Michael Mann served to help him on this project.

Gusmano Cesaretti photo

Ben Kenber: Congratulations on the documentary. This proved to be a real eye opener about the Chosen Few. How did you first become acquainted with this motorcycle club?

Gusmano Cesaretti: Well I saw some of those guys riding motorcycles about 25 years ago on the Pasadena freeway and I pulled over next to them with my car and I said, “Hey! Pull over, I want to talk to you.” And they pulled over then I told them, “I like the way you look. Everything about it is great. I love the way you were riding the bike.” They weren’t just riders, they had pride for some reason. So I told them I would like to take some pictures, and they invited me to the clubhouse. I went over there and it was amazing to see all these great amounts of people and they were all nice. I walked over with the camera and everybody started looking at me and saying, “Hey what are you doing? Oh yeah take pictures of me! Take pictures of my bike!” It was really great. They were friendly, they were open to anything and to me it was fascinating. They were a great people and then I started going there every other week and kept taking photographs and so on in support. Then in 2011, because they were talking all the time about their rides and how important they were for them and being together in like a brotherhood, I said I would like to film one of your rides. So I organized a ride for them where we went through South Central and on the freeways and then through downtown, and then after the ride they started really talking to me and said that we should make a record of all this. That’s when I started doing the documentary, and we just finished (laughs).

BK: When you first started shooting the documentary, how did you envision it and how did it evolve from that point to where it is now?

GC: That’s a good question. When I first started the documentary I had no idea because when you make a documentary you really don’t know which way you’re going. I feel you’re doing it for a year or two (laughs) and then you would have all the information you ever need to create a storyline. We recorded about 48 hours (of footage), and when we finally decided to edit it was like a nightmare because you’ve got listen to all these conversations and all the recording we did. It took months but then you know what’s going on, and then we put a big roll of paper on the floor of my studio and started writing down the scenes. It was crazy. A lot of different cameras were used. It took me about a month to figure out the storyline, and then even during the process of editing there’s always changing this, putting back this and taking this off. It was a very challenging process but I learned so much.

BK: When it came to filming the documentary what formats did you utilize?

GC: We did a lot of stuff with the Super 8 riding the bikes here and there and we used other film. We used Cannon, we used Sony, etc. But the problem when we did the editing, because of all the different formats and all the different cameras, it became now we gotta do this, now we gotta change this and now we have to download everything into this. It was really crazy, but it worked because I shot it in a very cinema verite way. I didn’t want to commit to any style. And the way I interviewed those guys it was like, “Tell me the story.” I didn’t ask any questions because I wanted them to talk and tell me from their point of view. So that’s usually the way I prefer to do my photography; I connect with people and establish a relationship even if it’s for a moment, and I need to start a relationship if I want to get the image that I need.

BK: When the Chosen Few’s club gets raided, we get to see how the media really twisted their identity of proportion. Then they got evicted from their building which had a huge impact on the neighborhood because things were a lot safer when the club was around.

GC: Correct. What was interesting about the Chosen Few in South Central is that it’s really about the cultural of Los Angeles. It’s not necessarily about the bikers, it’s about their lives. The clubhouse was open for all the members and friends and people and visitors like me. There were probably a lot of undercover cops going there too, I’m sure, just to check and make sure that they were okay. But the thing is this; there were always old people there. It wasn’t just the club for the motorcycle people. It was older people who used to sit there all day long and have conversations with their friends, and when they lost the clubhouse a lot of these old people died because they didn’t have a place to go. They were like homeless people practically, and that was really sad to see that happen. All the members too, they felt homeless. They felt like the police were trying to take their identity away. They didn’t have the energy that they used to have any more, so it was extremely sad.

BK: Speaking of the police, you did manage to get an interview with one of the undercover cops who infiltrated the Chosen Few. Was that a hard interview to get?

GC: No actually. I have a friend that is a cop and I said to him, “Look I’m doing this documentary and I would like to interview the police that did the raid.” He said, “Yeah I’ll find him for you.” So he took a couple weeks and then he called me one night and said, “I got the guy.” I talked to him and he was very interested to do it, and we got together and did it. He was actually a nice cop. He was very open and he also told me the truth. What he was saying was real.

BK: It was nice to have the cop’s perspective of the raid as well as the Chosen Few’s as it manages to balance things out.

GC: Yes, yes. It’s a big club and not everybody’s an angel, you know what I mean? But that’s the same in any other big company like Google. There’s always somebody messing up things and in the club a lot of those guys come from the gangs, most of them. Being in the club was like upgrading their lifestyle and they got a job, but they are still connected with the streets and the gangs. There will always be somebody doing a little bit of this and little bit of that and a little drug dealing, but most of them are really wonderful, nice people. The theology of the Father, Lionel Ricks, is amazing. He started the club because he didn’t have a family and he wanted to have a family. That’s beautiful. What really fascinated me the most was that Lionel Ricks started the club in 1959 and then integrated it in 1960, and this was before the civil rights movement. He was able to bring blacks and whites and Mexicans and Chinese and a couple of people from Syria together without any political or powerful stuff like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and all those people afterwards. He did it very simple and in a naïve and beautiful way with the motorcycle. That’s amazing to me. Think about it, he brought people together with a motorcycle! And that was when I said, “Okay we gotta do this,” and they were all excited about doing a documentary. We got all these great people to interview and the Father. The Father right now is very sick and in the hospital, and I hope he’s going to get better. But I did show him the documentary about a month ago when we finished editing. I went over to his house and showed it to him, and he had tears in his eyes and said, “It’s good. It’s real.” And I said, “Great! Thank you!” He really loved it.

BK: You worked a lot with Michael Mann on his movies. How did your experience working with him help you in making this documentary?

GC: Well I think making a film is completely different from making a documentary. The only help that I got on this film from that world is the camera guys that I worked with, and they are my friends and they came and helped me. With film you have a script and you got the actors and you have time to keep repeating and filming a scene a scene until it comes to where you want it. When you do a documentary the moment is right there. You are shooting this, you turn your head and you see something and you shoot that. You don’t know what’s going on and you’ve got to be aware of what is going on around you, so it’s really different. For me, this was a totally unique experience.

BK: Was there anything you wanted to include in this documentary that you were not able to?

GC: We got to a point where we said okay we gotta finish this project, so there were maybe a few more people that I wanted to interview that we never got to. There was a guy who did an amazing wheel stand. He did a wheelie and he was supposed to come over one night to do a performance for us while we were shooting in South Central, but the guy couldn’t make it and never showed up. And that was another thing that I wanted to include because it’s beautiful and its part of the art of being in control of the motorcycle. When somebody does something like that in a beautiful way it was nice to visually put it into the documentary, but at the same time it wasn’t that kind of a documentary. It was more about the feeling of the individuals and the members and everything that came from their hearts and communicating to the outside world and saying here we are. This is what we are. We are not what people think, we are what we are.

I want to thank Gusmano Cesaretti for taking the time to talk with me. Please feel free to check out the movie’s website at www.takenonegivenonethefilm.com, and be sure to check out its social media pages on Facebook and Twitter.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2015.