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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