MOVIE REVIEW: Kill the Messenger

In Kill the Messenger, Gary Webb’s big story slowly begins to unravel, due in no small effort of the rivals of the Mercury News, such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, to smear him.

jeremy-renner-kill-the-messenger-posterThe cover story of the October 9, 2014 issue of Metroland, the “Capitol Region’s Alternative Newsweekly,” was Return of the Messenger, about how a new film starring Jeremy Renner will serve as a belated vindication of an investigative journalist. The movie starts with clips of US Presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Ronald Reagan extolling the virtue of fighting the scourge of illegal drugs.

Kill the Messenger… is the true story of Sacramento-based investigative reporter Gary Webb, who earned both acclaim and notoriety for his 1996 San Jose Mercury News series that revealed the CIA had turned a blind eye to the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras trafficking crack cocaine in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere in urban America in the 1980s. One of the first-ever newspaper investigations to be published on the Internet, Webb’s story gained a massive readership and stirred up a firestorm of controversy and repudiation.”

The first part of the movie was like “All the President’s Men,” the movie about the Watergate affair that toppled the presidency of Richard Nixon, but on steroids, with hard-working Webb going out on a limb to nail this story. But his big story slowly begins to unravel, due in no small effort of the rivals of the Mercury News, such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post, to smear Webb, thus undermining the narrative.

This is an engaging story, but depressing in terms of both the government’s actions and the media’s complacency. Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991, who died recently, backed his reporters, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein when they investigated Watergate; the San Jose Mercury News eventually was less supportive of their reporter. The Washington Post’s actions in 1972 through 1974 were courageous and served the country well; the Washington Post of 1996, at least in regard to this story, was cowardly and petty.

At least some of the less positive reviews (75% positive on Rotten Tomatoes) suggest this movie also takes some liberties with the facts. This MAY be true – I know not – but it’s also possible, as The Myth of the Free Press by Chris Hedges suggests, that “these [CONTINUING!] attacks are an act of self-justification… an attempt by the mass media to mask the collaboration between themselves and the power elite.” In any case, the overarching narrative is probably accurate. Others suggest that the ending is unsatisfying; so it was, but that’s the way it really played out.

The Wife and I, who saw it on a recent Sunday afternoon at the Spectrum Theatre in Albany, thought it was well worth our time.

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