High school American history courses rarely made it too deep into the twentieth century. It’s never going to be easy to fit over five hundred years of history into a single year of classes and the odds of keeping things on schedule are kind of slim. Odds are good that they’ll barely even have time to reach Vietnam much less give it the time it needs to fully explain, and it’s even less likely that they’ll have time to really dig into the Iran-Contra affair. Rightly or wrongly, American history just generally seems a lot more complicated when you have to dig into the cold war and what could be more complicated than a scandal in which America sold weapons to an enemy in order to illegally fund a group that’s fighting another supposed enemy. In the late 80s the whole scandal proved a little too complicated to really rally popular outrage around and it’s even less understood today. Of course what’s really crazy is that the scandal was actually a lot deeper than anyone thought at the time and it’s that deeper dimension that was explored by journalist Gary Webb and by the new film Kill the Messenger, which examines the life of Gary Webb and the story that got him into very hot water.
As the film begins Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is a successful investigative journalist, but one who’s still relegated to working for the relatively small San Jose Mercury News. His area of expertise is the war on drugs and this has led him to meet some colorful character. One such colorful character was Coral Baca (Paz Vega), a young woman whose boyfriend (Aaron Farb) was facing drug charges and believed Webb’s reporting would help his case. She came to him armed with a legal document that was supposed to be classified but which was accidentally released by the justice department in discovery. The document revealed that the key witness in this trial, a man named Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez), was a government informant who been working for the government even though he was at the highest levels of cartel work and was seemingly a bigger fish than the man he was testifying against. Webb contacts the lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) of another drug dealer named “Freeway” Rick Ross (Michael K. Williams) who also stands to have Blandon testifying against him and convinces the lawyer to ask a very specific set of questions to Blandon while he’s on the stand. These questions reveal a larger conspiracy to on the part of the government that Webb resolves to reveal to the world at any cost.
If nothing else, Kill the Messenger has a pretty damn impressive cast. Jeremy Renner is of course the centerpiece and plays Webb as a cocky invesegator that kind of reminds me of later-day Robert Downey Jr. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt both realistically portray his bosses at the newspaper while Andy Garcia, Michael K. Williams, and Yul Vazquez portray some of the shady characters involved in the conspiracy that’s being unraveled and Rosemarie DeWitt does an admirable job as Webb’s longsuffering wife. That’s a pretty impressive ensemble already but beyond that the film features small appearances by Barry Pepper, Michael Sheen, Richard Schiff, Robert Patrick, Tim Blake Nelson, and Ray Liotta. This cast of recognizable actors helps to keep the many different characters involved in the narrative straight for the audience.
The main reason to recommend Kill The Messenger is the story. If you’re not already familiar with Gary Webb and his Dark Alliance articles then I’d definitely recommend the movie. This is an important story and it’s presented here in a watchable and accessible way. Having said that, I feel like the movie is still something of a missed opportunity. Michael Cuesta certainly directs the film competently, but he doesn’t really bring a master auteur’s eye to the table. He’s a little too enamored with montages and he just never brings that paranoid thriller intensity to the proceedings and his visual style is merely functional. The film also fails to really bring a really thought provoking take on the situation. Webb is seen almost entirely as a martyr brought down by the professional jealousy of his colleagues. There may be a lot of truth to that narrative but that’s pretty much the standard company line at this point. Webb was not perfect, he was a guy who flew a little too close to the sun and got burned and I feel like there was a more nuanced way to tell this story.
*** out of Four