REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
Some stories are too true to tell. This cautionary warning pervades “Kill the Messenger.”
The film kicks off with an excellent montage of documentary footage. We see Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Carter all inveighing against drugs and their pernicious impact on American Society. Just for good measure, First Lady Nancy Reagan, trots out her simplistic solution, “Just Say No!”
The film is based on the travails of Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), an award-winning investigative reporter for the “San Jose Mercury News.” It’s 1996 and he has just broken a story about the government seizure of personal property in drug cases. Webb documented the fact that even when the defendants were exonerated, their seized property was not returned to them.
In the aftermath of his scoop, Webb is contacted by a sultry Latina, Coral Baca (Paz Baca). Her boyfriend, Rafael Connejo (Aaron Farb) is a drug dealer, who is scheduled to go to trial. Russell Dodson (Barry Pepper) is an ambitious federal prosecutor, who is willing to bend the rules to score convictions. As a result of a clerical error, the government accidentally turned over a grand jury transcript in response to a discovery request. It reveals some startling information. The government has been employing Rafael’s partner, Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez), a major drug dealer, as a paid informant. Dodson is planning to call Danilo as his star witness against Rafael. However, rather than expose that the government is allowing Danilo to import large supplies of cocaine into the country, Dodson drops the case. Afterwards, Coral coos to Webb, “You thought you were getting a piece of cheese. I just gave you the mouse!”
Webb realizes that the prosecution’s strategy relies on calling Blandon as their witness in numerous cases. He approaches Alan Fenster (Tim Blake Nelson), an attorney representing Ricky Ross (Michael Kenneth Williams, Omar Little in “The Wire”), a street level dealer, in another drug trial being prosecuted by Dodson. Webb meets with Ross in jail. Ross recounts, “We couldn’t keep up with the supply.” When Webb interjects, “You mean demand,” Ross emphatically retorts, “No, the supply!” Apparently, the government was allowing such massive supplies of cocaine to be imported by the Contras that distribution networks weren’t adequate to move all the product.
Webb follows up the lead by flying down to Nicaragua, where he bribes his way into a local prison. He meets with Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia), a drug kingpin, who was involved in the Contra drugs for guns scheme. Although Meneses is technically a convicted prisoner, it becomes apparent that he nevertheless continues to wield considerable power. When Meneses wants to practice his golf swing, a soccer game is interrupted and the yard cleared to accommodate him. Meneses reveals that “Ollie” was aware that large shipments of cocaine were being imported into the U.S. Webb incredulously blurts out, “Oliver North?” In one of the film’s laugh out loud moments, Meneses sarcastically responds, “No, Oliver Hardy!”
The film assumes that the audience is aware that during the Contragate scandal, North was the Deputy Director of Political-Military Affairs for the National Security Council. In contravention of the Boland Amendment, he masterminded the illegal guns for drug scheme in order to finance the Contra rebels.
The imported coke flooded the streets of Watts and other inner city neighborhoods, creating an epidemic. At the time, President Reagan was supposedly waging a war on drugs and extolling the Contras as the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers. Meanwhile, the U.S. government was complicit with the Contras’ cocaine import operation.
C.I.A. officials summon Webb for a sit down. They warn him that he is treading in dangerous ground, which may jeopardize national security. One of them ominously suggests, “We would never hurt your family.” The veiled threat spurs an indignant Webb into action.
Following extensive research, Webb writes a three-part, heavily-documented 20,000 word exposé for the “San Jose Mercury News.” It became one of the first viral stories ever on the internet, receiving 1.3 million hits a day.
This ignited a firestorm. Community leaders and residents of inner city neighborhoods were understandably outraged. Another batch of adroitly interspliced documentary footage depicts this angry reaction.
The government went into damage control mode, launching a vicious smear campaign of Webb. Who were their principal partners in this full-scale character assassination? Shamefully, it was Webb’s fellow members of the fifth estate.
The “Los Angeles Times” was deeply embarrassed that a reporter from a much smaller newspaper with inferior resources had scooped them on a story that was right in their backyard. Prompted by these petty professional jealousies, they assigned seventeen reporters to the Gary Webb beat. These reporters were devoted to debunking his story.
Admittedly, Webb had made some methodological errors. For instance, he had failed to formally ask the C.I.A. for their side of the story before he went to print. This was a journalistic faux pas on Webb’s part. Of course, Webb argued that, from his prior dealings with the C.I.A., he already knew that they would not address his story. Several sources recanted the accounts that they had shared with Webb. Some even denied that they had ever spoken to him. It certainly seemed apparent that the government had leaned on some of Webb’s sources to induce their revised positions.
In his zeal, Webb had made some procedural mistakes and employed a hyperbolic writing style, not usually seen in investigative reporting. Rather than following up on Webb’s supposedly flawed story with their own investigations, other papers became mouthpieces for the C.I.A. spin on the story. “The New York Times” had courageously printed the Pentagon Papers, while Woodward and Bernstein from “The Washington Post” had broken the Watergate break-in story. However, in this case, both venerable publications joined the “Los Angeles Times” in attacking Webb.
Initially, Webb’s immediate editor, Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and managing editor, Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt), were both wildly enthusiastic about his groundbreaking series. However, in the face of the mounting controversy, both became rattled and withdrew their support for him. Webb was reassigned to a remote satellite office 150 miles from his home. After resigning in protest, Webb was never able to find another job at a daily newspaper. He became profoundly depressed. Eventually, he was found dead with not one, but two bullet wounds to the head, and an incongruous suicide note by his side.
It should be noted that in 2006, a decade after the “Los Angeles Times” had spearheaded the attack on Webb, they belatedly published a piece by Nick Schou, titled “The Truth in Dark Alliance.” Essentially constituting an apology, it acknowledged that Webb was fundamentally correct in linking the cocaine trade with the C.I.A. The story was later expanded into the book, “Kill the Messenger.” That, in conjunction with Webb’s own book, expanded from his own Dark Alliance newspaper series, has been adapted by Peter Landesman (“Parkland”) to provide this film’s screenplay.
As directed by Michael Cuesta (“Six Feet Under,” “Homeland”), “Kill the Messenger” has some excellent moments. The jailhouse scene in which Webb meets with Ricky Ross and the latter’s trial both sizzle with intensity. The vignette in which Webb meets with Norwin Meneses also has tremendous resonance as Garcia oozes reptilian charm. Towards the end of the film, Webb awakens to find that a mysterious stranger has managed to surreptitiously enter his apartment. It turns out to be John Cullen (Ray Liotta), a former C.I.A. spook, who subsequently left to join forces with the Contra drug dealers. Liotta delivers a brilliant soliloquy.
Renner does a fine job in his role, his best since his Academy Award- nominated performance in “Hurt Locker.” He captures his character’s downward spiral from cocky investigative journalist into a state of deep-seated paranoia and despair. Renner is well-complemented by the scene stealing performances by Williams, Garcia, and Liotta. Unfortunately, the film has an underdeveloped narrative trajectory. As a consequence, there is a poor synergy between the richly dramatic, single-scene appearances by these esteemed actors.
“Kill the Messenger” does an excellent job of depicting the inherent cynicism and hypocrisy of U.S. policies and their cover up of their collusion with the Contras. It also effectively portrays the role of establishment media outlets in promulgating bogus government propaganda. While largely sympathetic to Webb, the film does acknowledge his personal and professional flaws. It is less effective in explaining how the technical flaws in Webb’s reportage were exploited to destroy him.
“Kill the Messenger” is a sobering drama about the perils of exposing the truth.
*** R (for language and drug content) 112 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose.com.