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Sending A Mixed Message In A Call To Kill The Messenger

Updated on October 31, 2015

Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news, but bad news needs to be told. Newspaper reporter Gary Webb tells some unsettling news in Kill The Messenger. Jeremy Renner plays Webb, who breaks the biggest story of his career in 1996, when he worked for the San Jose Mercury News. While doing piece on drug dealers, he keeps getting calls at his office from a woman named Coral Baca (Paz Vega), whose boyfriend stands accused of helping to bring drugs to America from Nicaragua. She has a file on her man that she was never meant to see. When he presses prosecutor Russell Dodson (Barry Pepper) for details about this defendant, Dodson gets upset. Webb soon discovers a dealer, Ricky Ross (Michael Kenneth Williams), has connections to this operation. Webb contacts Ross's attorney, Alan Fenster (Tim Blake Nelson), to meet with Ross and go to court to defend Baca's boyfriend. That man, Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez), tells the court that the CIA helped to bring the drugs into the US so the US government could finance a war against the spread of communism in that Central American nation. Webb gets permission from his editor, Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to travel to Nicaragua to meet with the imprisoned Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia), who partnered with Blandon. There, Meneses confirms the CIA connections, and tells of others who know the connection. Once home, Webb publishes his Dark Alliance pieces about these deals. The media wants to talk to Webb, and the piece gets quite a bit of praise.

After the praise dies, though, others in the newspaper business start to question the veracity of Webb's piece. The CIA never denies the allegations, but never confirms them, citing issues of national security. Webb's past in Ohio becomes an issue, which dismays his wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their family. A suspicious event at the Webb house brings further adverse attention to Gary because of his reaction. An ombudsman cannot corroborate certain parts of Gary's piece. As a result, Anna and paper publisher Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt) decide that Webb should work from another branch of the paper on low-profile stories. The move doesn't stop the unusual occurrences happening to Gary. One of them involves a visit from a former CIA operative named John Cullen (Ray Liotta), who has to explain CIA procedures off the record.

Kill The Messenger, sad to say, is based on the articles (and subsequent non-fiction book) written by Webb, as well as by a book by Nick Schou that gives the movie its name. The movie isn't as shocking, though, as it is cynical. Director Michael Cuesta takes viewers through the process Webb endured in a solid, but undistinguished, fashion. Pete Landesman provides a capable screenplay adaptation of a man who saw his fortunes change twice with the same article. He stood by his work, and found many starting to stand their distance from him.

Renner gives a strong performance as Webb, who goes from being a media hero to unfairly being a media goat. He dared to tread a thin line where his work often came from sources wishing to remain anonymous. He told the story in spite of people who didn't get named, which left him open to doubters. The questions lead to uncomfortable conversations with family and colleagues. Renner's sad look says so much as he not only tells what he learned, but the toll the backlash brought makes him weary. The others in the cast have either very small or cameo roles, and do fine work as well. Besides the actors I've already mentioned, Michael Sheen deserves note as Fred Weil, a man who knows Meneses and cautions Webb on events that might lie ahead should he do an expose involving the CIA.

For as long as I've lived, Americans have been told, especially by their presidents, about the big threats posed by drugs and communism. Other ranking government entities, meanwhile, made a secret deal that belies those beliefs. When somebody exposes the deal, they hide behind their authority and let others complain and get into trouble for speaking. Kill The Messenger shows how cheap talk can be, and what happens to a journalist when he reveals incidents that run counter to attitudes most Americans are expected to believe and follow. Gary Webb stood accused of inaccuracies, and that accusation has a little truth to it. Still, he stood by his story, and found himself in a very lonely place.

On a scale of one to four stars, I give Kill The Messenger three stars. A sad but true tale about integrity.


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