Kill the Messenger
Starring Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Tim Blake Nelson, Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, Oliver Platt and Michael K. Williams
Directed by Michael Cuesta
From Focus Features
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Late in Kill the Messenger, a journalist is awakened in the middle of the night by a chatty CIA operative who has come to set the record straight. “First, you’re attracted to the power. Then you’re addicted to the power. Then devoured by the power,” the agent says in the shadows. The journalist asks, why are you telling me this? “It’s my confession.”
It’s a pivotal moment in Michael Cuesta’s fantastic new film because it reveals how bad things have become for the reporter, and how much worse they’re still going to get.
The reporter is Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) and he works for the San Jose Mercury News covering property seizures in Los Angeles drug cases. After a tip, he’s alerted to a courtroom where he witnesses a rather strange thing: a major drug case is dropped simply because Webb is in the courtroom. Federal prosecutors don’t want reporters poking around their key witness, a man named Danilo Blandon, so they drop all charges against a known drug kingpin. This only arouses the curiosity of Webb, who plunges headfirst into the crack epidemic of Los Angeles of the early 1990s.
Renner, channeling his inner Sean Penn, punches his way through this true story with ease, like he was destined to play Webb. But that could be said about many of Renner’s roles — he’s just phenomenal every time. Renner plays Webb like a crusty proto-punk clad in frayed canvas, Metallica and Rancid posters on the garage wall, shaggy hair billowing from his head and chin. When his son asks for advice, it’s a priceless nugget: “Don’t let the assholes win.” Webb is relentless, a characteristic that will bring about his rise and eventual fall.
While researching the elusive Danilo Blandon, Webb ends up at a criminal trial for a mid-level drug dealer who has a great line about his boss — “I was an elf. He was Santa Claus.” Because he can’t get to Blandon directly, Webb waits for him to take the witness stand and then feeds questions to an attorney from the front row of the courtroom. Under oath, Blandon drops a bomb: his boss was not another drug kingpin but a CIA operative. This game-changing fact sends Webb deep down the rabbit hole of government secrets. After trips to South America, countless interviews, prison visitations and a dangerous tour of an airport for drug planes, Webb connects the dots: the CIA was using drugs to fund contras in a secret war in Nicaragua, a war that congress refused to fund.
Webb’s story, with the headline “Dark Alliance,” shook American politics like an earthquake. And for awhile he was a media celebrity who received appearance requests from Montel, Jerry Springer, and 20/20 or 60 Minutes, as long as he would appear on one but not the other. A White House official, sympathetic to moths and flames, tells him, “My friend, some stories are just too true to tell.” But Webb told it. And then it all collapsed.
The downfall started mostly out of professional jealousy. The big papers were sore that the itty bitty San Jose Mercury News and it’s plucky no-name reporter scooped them. The CIA funded the drug epidemic, but the media was more interested in Webb’s reporting style. They were piranha until nothing was left of Webb. It was not a proud moment for journalism.
Kill the Messenger is a sensational journey through Webb’s story. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Cuesta gives the story an immediacy and documentary-like feel with handheld cameras, inserts of drug busts and money-filled apartments, and he lovingly frames Renner as an old-school shoe-leather journalist, a martyr for the truth, a reporter who cut his own path through a story.
The film has an incredible cast, including Tim Blake Nelson as a defense attorney, Rosemarie DeWitt as Webb’s wife, Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as overwhelmed editors, and Barry Pepper as a slimy federal prosecutor. A number of great actors have only single scenes, including Andy Garcia, Robert Patrick and Michael K. Williams. Ray Liotta, in a perfectly simple one-off scene, plays the trespassing CIA agent with the existential crisis.
The film does not leave the impact of Webb’s work up in the air. It states clearly that the CIA colluded with drug dealers to sell crack cocaine in the United States and to use the money they made to fund a war in South America. You might disagree with that prognosis, but Kill the Messenger has solid reporting speaking on its behalf. The film ends with political heavyweights confirming much of the CIA plot.
Gary Webb was right all along.