Whistle-blowers are rarely appreciated, even when we desperately want to know the story and get the inside scoop on what’s happening. It’s not just true in real life, it’s a trope of cinema too, from Cloud Atlas to The China Syndrome, if you go public with what’s really going on in your company or organization, it generally doesn’t end well.
Kill the Messenger examines one of the most shocking misuses of power to ever come out of that most corrupt of agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency: In the 1990’s, the CIA was helping Nicaraguan rebels by helping Central American drug smugglers bring cocaine into the United States.
Or were they?
That’s the puzzle that’s incompletely examined in this otherwise powerful and fact-based thriller about San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), who has the story dumped on his lap by drug traffickers girlfriend Coral Baca (Paz Vega) when she gives him a confidential Grand Jury transcript that reveals the link between the CIA and the smugglers. He digs in to the story with a vengeance and finally convinces his editor Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he publishes in the SJ Mercury. And wins both a Pulitzer Prize and the award for journalist of the year.
When other papers, notably including the Los Angeles Times, question how they completely missed the story, they decide that in addition to investigating the CIA/Contra connection, they are also going to put Webb under a microscope and examine his life, his story, his sources and the credibility of the entire story.
Renner plays Webb as a family man with a temper, a journalist who is eager to tell the story, even as he’s increasingly trusting of dubious sources in Central America and the United States. After he goes from being the toast of the journalistic community to a pariah, his wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt) kicks him out of their family home in San Jose.
Kill the Messenger is a thriller with a mission, very much in the same light as All the President’s Men or The China Syndrome. The director — in this case Michael Cuesta — has a story he wants to tell about a journalist who was misunderstood, blackballed, and ultimately driven to suicide after years of being unable to find work as a writer. But there’s more to the story than that, and while Kill the Messenger is exciting and entertaining, I really wanted to understand the motives of the editors at the LA Times, Washington Post and New York Times, all of which investigated the “Dark Alliance” series from the SJ Mercury and all of which found it insufficiently researched, with unsubstantiated conclusions.
There’s no doubt that all whistleblowers have to assess whether the potential price they’ll pay for blowing that whistle is greater than the benefit of having done just that, but sometimes the impetus for following a story might be dreams of a Pulitzer, book deals or even a movie years later. Not the story itself. It’s likely that’s part of the Dark Alliance story, the tragic story of reporter Gary Webb and his eventual demise, but that was never examined, and it’s too bad. Because a more human Webb might have helped us understand this film and why people did what they did.
Even with the flaws, however, Renner turns in a superb performance as the troubled journalist, and the rest of the cast – notably Anna (Winstead) and Meneses (Andy Garcia) – help propel the film through its many twists and turns. It’s a good history lesson and a reminder that even with the best of intentions, organizations like the CIA can still do some really terrible things. I recommend you see Kill the Messenger. Then do some homework of your own.