Kill the Messenger

Posted on October 9, 2014 at 5:59 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and drug content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, including teen drinking, drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Gangster-style violence, sad death, suicide
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 10, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: B00KSPL01K
Copyright 2014 Focus Features
Copyright 2014 Focus Features

Sometimes an honest, crusading, investigative reporter uncovers corruption and deceit and the result is triumph, a Pulitzer Prize, humiliating resignations and criminal convictions of the guilty and an Oscar-winning movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. And sometimes, instead, the result is killing the messenger. Gary Webb was a passionate, dedicated journalist at the San Jose Mercury News who managed to infuriate not only the CIA but his far bigger journalistic rivals. He uncovered a story no one much wanted told and no one much wanted to hear. Jeremy Renner plays Webb in this effort to give him his due.

Although it is set in the mid-90’s, director Michael Cuesta gives the film a 70’s paranoia, one man against The Man vibe that harks back to “The Parallax View,” “All the President’s Men,” “Z,” and “Serpico.” Renner, who also co-produced, brings his coiled energy and electric physicality to Webb, making journalism seem like a full-contact sport. His Webb is a guy who runs up the courthouse steps like Rocky. We see him early on, walking to his desk in the paper’s outpost near the state capital, going past the grand, imposing signs marking the areas occupied by the big national daily papers to his modest little corner. He’s a small fish in a very big ocean. But he has enormous determination, integrity, a sense of something to prove, and a healthy ego.

And then he gets the lead of a lifetime. A beautiful woman (Paz Vega), the girlfriend of a drug dealer, has some information for him that sounds preposterous. She says he “sold drugs for the government.” Seven tons worth. And it leads to the discovery that the government, specifically the CIA, is funneling money to the Contras in Nicaragua by underwriting the drug trade that is pouring crack into the poorest areas in the inner cities. “National security and crack cocaine in the same sentence — does that not sound strange to you?” And there’s a warning. “My friend, some stories are just too true to tell.”

The problem with writing about bad things done by powerful people is that they will use their power to attack whoever is trying to expose them. “Good investigative reporting ruffles feathers.” Sometimes the creature sporting those feathers will use its claws. To use a neologism from the movie, they will “controversialize” whoever is putting their reputations at risk. Webb was not perfect. He had enemies. At first, his newspaper celebrates his journalistic coup. But when his bosses are put under pressure, they buckle. Soon the once-superstar reporter is exiled to Cupertino. Without the support of his family and the chance to do the work that defines him, he has nothing to hold onto.

The story is still a murky and complicated one, despite post-credit updates on revelations confirming Webb’s reporting. Renner is a magnetic presence and he makes Webb’s passion for telling the story honestly and exposing the dishonesty of others almost palpable. Webb’s scenes with his children are especially touching, though it is too bad to see the talented Rosemary DeWitt relegated to a dull “don’t work so hard, don’t take risks” role. A scene near the end at an awards dinner has an emotional punch.  Renner’s performance has enormous integrity, illuminating the murky compromises and betrayals he exposes and the ones that get the better of him as well.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, drugs, drug dealing, and gangster violence, as well as tense family confrontations.

Family discussion: Who is doing the work that Gary Webb did today? Has the CIA become more accountable as a result of his work? Do we still kill the messenger?

If you like this, try: “Serpico” and Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion and more of the work of real-life reporter Gary Webb

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