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Kill the Messenger

October 10, 2014
Kill the Messenger

A couple weeks ago, while talking about The Equalizer, I mentioned the sorts of shady dealings the United States government carried out in our name that we started to become aware of in the ’70s and ’80s. So let me tell you a story.

Ronald Reagan, middling movie actor turned saint of the modern conservative movement, wanted to fight a war in Central America. During his own administration, we learned that the United States had arranged to sell weapons to Iran — in violation of an arms embargo — in order to raise money to secretly fund antisocialist “Contra” forces in Nicaragua. What we didn’t realize until ten years later was that the CIA also raised money in partnerships with major drug traffickers, turning the other way as they brought literally billions — with a ‘B’ — of dollars of cocaine into the country, to the point that the local distributors couldn’t drum up enough demand to meet the supply. No American lives were lost fighting in the Nicaraguan jungle, but plenty were destroyed by the crack cocaine epidemic that funded the fighting.

It’s a crazy story, and we probably wouldn’t have known about it at all except for Gary Webb. And, since the final confirmation was quietly delivered amid the chaos of the trumped-up Monica Lewinsky scandal, you may not even have heard of it except for Kill the Messenger.

Webb (Jeremy Renner) was an investigative reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, a small regional newspaper. In 1996, he wrote up a story about civil asset forfeitures — the kind John Oliver just talked about last week — that caught someone’s eye. A woman contacted him, saying her boyfriend was accused of drug trafficking, and something interesting had accidentally been disclosed by the prosecuting attorney: his confidential witness was Danilo Blandón. But while normal drug prosecutions punch up the supply chain, this one was punching down: Blandón was the supplier, and a larger player than her boyfriend could ever be. Something strange was going on.

Blandón’s name led Webb to Rick Ross (Michael K. Williams), indicted for purchasing hundreds of kilograms of cocaine. He ran a drug empire in Los Angeles, but even so he was a much smaller fish than Blandón. From there, the trail ran to Blandón’s partner, Norwin Meneses (Andy García), in Nicaragua’s Tipitapa prison. One of Meneses’ colleagues showed Webb around the old, disused airfields, and gave him the name of Fred Weil (Michael Sheen), now on the National Security Council.

Webb’s editors (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt) were nervous but excited at the prospect of breaking such a big story in their little paper, and so Webb went ahead to publish the story as Dark Alliance. It was initially acclaimed, even setting Webb up for the Journalist of the Year award from the local Society of Professional Journalists. But the CIA obviously wasn’t going to admit to their part, and even the papers of record in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC were more interested in tearing Webb down than admitting they got scooped by a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News. Of course, only someone like Webb could have broken the story, since a biger-name reporter would have known what he was getting into.

The movie plays out as a taut thriller, and Renner is excellent as Webb, steadily unraveling his composure as his career and personal life collapse around him. But the story Kill the Messenger tells about Webb is not nearly so fascinating as the story he told. And whether or not his journalism was as oversimplified as his critics suggest, the movie certainly is when it comes to Webb’s life. A speech at the SPJ awards makes for a dramatic final scene, but if Webb’s good name and career started to go down in flames by the time of the ceremony, it feels like they’d have found a way to rescind the award.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test fail.

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