History is full of horrific deeds done by unscrupulous people, but, as U.S. citizens, we are usually more shocked when we learn of outrageous acts committed by our own government. It's almost impossible to imagine the real-life reporter Gary Webb's reaction to learning that CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras were flooding U.S. cities with massive amounts of cocaine, using the profits to fund the White House-supported Contra militia during Ronald Reagan's presidency.
This is so disturbing, it's difficult to watch "Kill the Messenger" and write a review. Based on the books "Dark Alliance" by Gary Webb, and "Kill the Messenger" by Nick Schou, Peter Landesman wrote the screenplay for this true, and incredibly unnerving, story. Michael Cuesta directs and Jeremy Renner stars as Webb.
Gary Webb and his wife, Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt), and their three children, relocate to California from Cleveland, Ohio. All Webb ever wanted to do was write. He wins a Pulitzer Prize after reporting on the Loma Prieta earthquake as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. But after the gorgeous girlfriend (Paz Vega) of a drug trafficker drops a Grand Jury transcript in his lap detailing a link between the CIA and Nicaraguan drug smugglers, his life takes a dramatic turn.
Webb, at great personal risk, takes off for Nicaragua, where he bribes his way into a prison to meet the drug kingpin Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia), who provides him with information and the name of the banker who laundered the money --- billions actually.
Warned off this expose by Fred Weil (Michael Sheen) in Washington, D.C., Webb goes back to his newspaper to write a three-part series entitled "Dark Alliance", which initially rocked the newspaper world, and the national media. But, as predicted by Weil, the CIA begins discrediting Webb and his entire story.
It's a supremely cautionary tale --- especially considering the harm that was done to millions by the proliferation of drugs and drug addiction. The fact that all of this was acceptable to Reagan's administration so the war in Nicaragua could be funded is reprehensible. And also how Webb's life is destroyed.
Renner is spectacular in this role. He spent a great deal of time researching Webb, and pulled in a lot of favors to get this movie made --- also acting as one of the producers. His dedication to this project is vastly apparent in his portrayal of this determined, hard-working reporter. He showcases Gary's plights, both personal and professional, with superb understanding.
The entire cast is perfect, with many great small performances from Sheen, Garcia, Barry Pepper, Oliver Platt, Ray Liotta, Michael Kenneth Williams and Tim Blake Nelson. However, as I repeatedly comment, the script by Landesman is essential to the brilliance of "Kill the Messenger", along with Cuesta's direction and Director of Photography, Sean Bobbitt ("12 Years a Slave").
"Kill the Messenger" is an extremely powerful film --- and one that is so important historically. It's sickening that it ever had to happen.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
Jeremy Renner rose to cinematic prominence in 2008 with his turn in "The Hurt Locker", earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In 2010, he was again nominated as Best Supporting Actor for "The Town".
His latest film, "Kill the Messenger", is based on the true story of an investigative reporter who wrote a scathing expose of the CIA's alleged involvement in a drugs-for-money conspiracy in the 1980's. Renner plays Gary Webb, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and with this career-best performance, he should at least be in the discussion for another Academy nod.
Webb, working for the San Jose Mercury News in the mid-90's, receives a tip that the U.S. government is complicit in funding Nicaraguan Contras via the sale of cocaine, especially crack. In a series of newspaper articles --- later made into his 1996 book "Dark Alliance" (on which the movie is partially based) , he asserts that the CIA approved a plan that had Nicaraguan drug dealers selling drugs inside the U.S. He maintains the illegal profits were then used to support the Contras --- anti-Communists --- against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
To back up his allegations, Webb meets with key drug figures, including Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia), a drug baron in prison at the time. The San Jose Mercury News prints Webb's story, and along with personal accolades he receives --- including "Journalist of the Year" from the Bay Area society of journalists --- the relatively small town paper itself gains a reputation for investigative reporting, and everyone celebrates the paper's new-found notoriety.
However, the joy is short-lived. The story spreads like wildfire and incurs the wrath of the CIA, which seeks to discredit Webb's story since he has no actual proof of his allegations on the record. Even Meneses, with nothing to lose, claims he never met with Webb, further eroding Gary's credibility. With the pressure mounting, and Gary subjected to threats against him and his family, he is ordered to retreat temporarily to a Mercury News outlet in Cupertino, California.
"Kill the Messenger" is a taut, fast-paced and complex political and journalistic thriller. We see both sides of Webb's life, his personal relations with his wife, Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt) and three kids, and his initially strong standing at the paper with his editor, Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and executive editor, Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt).
In addition to Garcia's character, Webb meets with a variety of other key players, all portrayed in virtual cameos by accomplished veteran actors. They are attorney Alan Fenster (Tim Blake Nelson), who represents cocaine trafficker Ricky Ross (Michael Kenneth Williams); Fred Weil, a D.C. operative, who knows Webb is on the right track, but warns him of the danger he is inviting (Welsh actor Michael Sheen, with a very natural American accent); Russell Dodson (Barry Pepper), a slick prosecutor; and ex-CIA agent John Cullen (Ray Liotta), who knows the truth but refuses to speak on record.
Although director Michael Cuesta is best known for his television work, including episodes of "Homeland", with "Kill the Messenger" he has certainly displayed his expertise on the big screen. It is exciting film fare in the vein of "All The President's Men" or "The Falcon and the Snowman". Renner's exemplary performance is reason enough to see this movie.
Because of Webb's diligence, the government issued a 400-page report about the drugs-for-Contra affair, but, as we are reminded in the film, the American press was preoccupied with the President Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, so the report was virtually ignored. I'm guessing that most moviegoers forgot or never knew how it all worked out, but I can tell you the ending to this story is a stunner.
Finally, here is a quote from the real Gary Webb:
"The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress."
Opinion: Strong See It Now!