Review by Paul Stathakis | October 29, 2014

An inconvenient truth

I thought my job was to tell the pub­lic the truth, the facts, pret­ty or not, and let the pub­lish­ing of those facts make a dif­fer­ence in how peo­ple look at things, at them­selves and what they stand for.” There’s a mis­sion state­ment that should be framed on each journalist’s desk. These words are spo­ken by Gary Webb and they come at a cru­cial time. Jour­nal­ism has had its fair share of heroes, brave writ­ers who’ve placed them­selves in harm’s way all in the name of truth. You’ve heard about Bob Wood­ward, Carl Bern­stein, and Robert Gray­smith to name a few. But have you ever heard about Gary Webb? Chances are you haven’t and yet his sto­ry takes us back to a time when jour­nal­ists were oper­at­ing with integri­ty and courage. Their work was care­ful­ly researched, dan­ger­ous, and some­times con­vo­lut­ed enough to over­take them on a men­tal lev­el.

In 1996, Webb was a jour­nal­ist for the San Jose Mer­cury News. He had writ­ten a con­tro­ver­sial series enti­tled “Dark Alliance” in which he claimed that the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion was large­ly respon­si­ble for the 1980s crack cocaine epi­dem­ic in Los Ange­les. Accord­ing to Webb’s inves­tiga­tive work, the gov­ern­ment was aware that drugs were being ille­gal­ly trans­port­ed into Amer­i­ca. The prof­its made from the impor­ta­tion of these drugs, he claims, were used to arm Con­tra rebels in Nicaragua. The piece caught the atten­tion of gov­ern­ment offi­cials and news­pa­pers such as the Los Ange­les Times and the Wash­ing­ton Post. Both pub­li­ca­tions dis­missed Webb’s work, ques­tion­ing the bulk of his inves­ti­ga­tion and accus­ing the jour­nal­ist of hav­ing fab­ri­cat­ed most of the sto­ry includ­ing sources and quotes. This wave of neg­a­tive crit­i­cism incit­ed the San Jose Mer­cury News to drop the sto­ry and, instead, write an apol­o­gy to read­ers for hav­ing print­ed what they deemed an inac­cu­rate sto­ry. None of this made any sense to Webb. A sto­ry that he had con­se­crat­ed months and years to was qui­et­ly and quick­ly being brushed aside. This was a fight that Webb wasn’t pre­pared to give up. “Kill the Mes­sen­ger” flaw­less­ly recre­ates this peri­od with Jere­my Ren­ner becom­ing total­ly immersed in his role as the res­olute jour­nal­ist. Con­sid­er­ing today’s cin­e­ma, this is some­thing of a rar­i­ty, the kind of film that comes along once every so often. It is smart, thrilling, and it fea­tures a cap­ti­vat­ing per­for­mance by its lead star.

Ren­ner is an actor that likes to take risks. In Ben Affleck’s “The Town” (2010), he was per­fect as an anti­hero. In “The Bourne Lega­cy” (2012) he proved that he had what it took to be an action star. In “Amer­i­can Hus­tle” (2013), he daz­zled audi­ences by show­cas­ing the dra­mat­ic actor in him. In “Kill the Mes­sen­ger”, he con­tin­ues to amaze us. Ren­ner went to great lengths to pro­duce “Kill the Mes­sen­ger”, going as far as to cre­ate his own film pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny. In inter­views Ren­ner admit­ted that, pri­or to mak­ing the film, he hadn’t heard about Webb. But he was imme­di­ate­ly intrigued when he learned about his sto­ry and was moti­vat­ed to play him. We feel Renner’s com­mit­ment to the project in vir­tu­al­ly every scene includ­ing those where he takes a break from report­ing. A delight­ful sup­port­ing cast also adds con­sid­er­able val­ue. Robert Patrick, Ray Liot­ta, Michael Sheen, and Andy Gar­cia make the most of their brief appear­ances. Oliv­er Platt is his usu­al friendly/comical self and Rose­marie Dewitt is absorb­ing as Webb’s sup­port­ive wife.

Webb’s writ­ing earned him the Pulitzer Prize, an hon­or that meant lit­tle to him. “The back­ing away of the paper, I think, was a betray­al for him per­son­al­ly. It wasn’t about what any­body else said. That’s what real­ly crushed his heart,” explained Ren­ner to the Hol­ly­wood Reporter. Tak­ing on the gov­ern­ment also trans­formed Webb in the process. It is said he became obses­sive, para­noid, and, towards the end, depres­sive. He claimed that the CIA was close­ly mon­i­tor­ing him as he inde­pen­dent­ly con­tin­ued his inves­ti­ga­tion. Renner’s per­for­mance feeds on this para­noia as he also illus­trates Webb’s burn­ing desire to inform and be heard. In one scene he vis­its his edi­tor at her home ear­ly in the morn­ing to report a break in his sto­ry. He eager­ly explains with his thoughts rac­ing. When she tells him to slow down, he fires back with force telling her, “I’m not fin­ished with it.” The deter­mi­na­tion to fin­ish the sto­ry and get it out there is evi­dent in Renner’s man­ner­isms, his body lan­guage, and his pierc­ing eyes.

A num­ber of con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists argue that the CIA played a role in Webb’s death while oth­ers believe it was the sto­ry that con­sumed the jour­nal­ist to the point of sui­cide. Just days pri­or to his death, Webb appeared in a final inter­view where he spoke about the sto­ry with the same lev­el of devo­tion. This was a sto­ry that would remain a part of him until the end. The Wash­ing­ton Post recent­ly wrote an arti­cle in which they again dis­cred­it­ed Webb’s work and said that he is not to be regard­ed as a hero the way the film por­trays him. But why would a paper, whose very own reporters were respon­si­ble for Nixon’s impeach­ment, attack a reporter that was try­ing to expose gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion? There are scenes in the film that touch on Webb’s fam­i­ly life and infi­deli­ties. He may have been flawed but he left the world believ­ing that the bod­ies that gov­ern were even more flawed. The title of the film is spe­cial. It reads as an order and it invites us to think about who might want to kill this mes­sen­ger. The truth isn’t always pret­ty but it is nec­es­sary and those at fault might get des­per­ate enough to remain in the shad­ows. By any means nec­es­sary.

 

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