I really admire investigative journalists. They’re like detectives who works for all of us where it’s not about protecting one person, but looking out for society as a whole by trying to get at the truth and hold the guilty accountable for their actions. However, too often we get bogged down in what’s salacious rather than what’s honest. Director Michael Cuesta falls into the same trap with his new film, Kill the Messenger. Although his movie (which is based on a true story) firmly sides with reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), the director seems distracted by Gary’s paranoia and government intrigue when the more interesting story is about how newspapers would prefer to sabotage each other rather than join the search for truth.
As depicted in the film, Webb worked as hotshot reporter working for the San Jose Mercury News when in 1996 he stumbled across the story that the CIA had been working alongside drug cartels in the 1980s as part of an effort to finance the Contras in Nicaragua. The ramifications of the story were massive since the government had undermined its vaunted War on Drugs by protecting drug kingpins who could not only finance Cold War operations, but also work as informants. Webb’s report electrified the media and the country (especially citizens of urban areas who believed the CIA purposely introduced crack-cocaine into the black community), but both the government and other newspapers began to tear away at Webb’s credibility rather than respond to the seriousness of his article.
Only about half the movie is Gary’s investigation, and it plays well as a fast-paced piece of nuts-and-bolts reporting story as Webb travels to South America, talks to the criminals involved in the operation, and writes his story while listening to rock music. Webb is a COOL GUY [I imagine this was capitalized in the screenplay considering how much the movie wants to play up this character aspect] and a paragon of his profession whose only mistake was a personal one involving his family.
I’m glad that Cuesta devotes so much of his movie to how Webb was brought so low, but because he’s painted as a noble crusader who did one bad (but not unforgivable) thing, he then becomes a martyr, which is a fairly uninteresting depiction. It does a disservice to a man who was trying to find all the angles by showing him as nothing more than a hero turned victim. Perhaps that was the case, but if so, it doesn’t leave much more than a sense of pity and frustration. The movie becomes a hagiography, and it works so much better when it’s an exposé.
What surprised me most about Kill the Messenger wasn’t that the CIA would push back against the story, but that other news organizations would try to discredit Webb as a way to cover up their own journalistic failing when it came to covering the story. It wasn’t a big conspiracy; it was just business, and while it’s more cloak-and-dagger to have unidentified agents raid a reporter’s files, it’s more surprising that news organizations would prefer to tear each other down even though we should remember that news is a business like any other. And because the American public has a short attention span, it was easy to smear Webb and make people forget about his article, especially since the country was caught up in the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal.
The culprits—both the American public and the news media—are more interesting than how Webb’s life fell apart, and while that may sound a little cold-hearted, the movie engages in the same crime of his persecutors by making him appear as a one-dimensional character. Renner does his best to make Webb more human, but he’s still trapped by the juiciness of watching a good man betrayed and destroyed. The movie’s post-script is particularly infuriating, but for the wrong reasons as it provides implications rather than acknowledging simple yet tragic conclusions. Kill the Messenger is a nice celebration of Gary Webb, but it would have shown him greater respect by following his lead.