Freedom of the press? “Kill the Messenger” in review

I. F. Stone, one of the heroes of investigative journalism in the last century, wrote that “All governments lie.” A telling illustration of Stone’s simple yet profound observation plays out in meticulous detail in the new film Kill The Messenger, starring Jeremy Renner as San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb. Webb was the writer who in the mid-1990s broke the shocking story that the CIA was directly involved in crack cocaine trafficking during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, using the proceeds to illegally fund the Nicaraguan contras’ war against the duly elected Sandinista government that overthrew the hated Somoza dictatorship.

Film director Michael Cuesta and writer Peter Landesman show Nancy Reagan early on, amongst a parade of presidents and government leaders, beginning with Tricky Dick Nixon, decrying drugs in America. Her “Just say No” became the oft-mocked mantra of the day, while hubby privately whispered, “Just say Yes,” thus creating the specter of a constitutional crisis by flaunting the congressional Boland Amendment which expressly prohibited the government from financially supporting the contras.

The narrative takes its first steps in a local-interest story about a drug raid. Webb mentions that the government appropriates the homes and property of accused dealers without due process; he becomes skeptical of government aims and the attendant loss of constitutional protections. But his editor deletes that paragraph from the article, leaving Webb to wonder if he has the support of his own newspaper to say such things.

Almost overnight, Webb is drawn into a spiral of nefarious personalities, gun-running and drug-pushing, crooked bankers, a cast of characters all orchestrated by the CIA, willingly abetted by law enforcement and federal prosecutors committed to concealing the truth. After an explosive burst of fame for the first major story going live on the internet, he encounters an ultimately acquiescent mainstream media that says, “Some stories are just too true to tell.” All the while, the executive branch of government is hell bent on preventing “another Cuba on our shores.” Oh, and did we mention the stacks of U.S. currency piled so high they had to be periodically rotated to avoid the paper going to rot?

The crack cocaine explosion in urban America largely affected people of color. The turf war made the stakes higher and more seductive for such gangs as the Crips and the Bloods, giving the lie to the ubiquitous anti-gang rhetoric in the public discourse. The National Security State acted not just to drug people and dull their spirit, but to start filling up jail cells in the ever quickening pace of prison building and long, mandatory sentences. The War on Drugs = the Prison Industrial Complex = the New Jim Crow.

Kill the Messenger raises daunting questions about the role of the press in society. Who would have believed that the San Jose Mercury News, publishing primarily local news stories, could possibly score a scoop of this magnitude? Webb succeeded in unmasking a scandal of far-ranging implications that the Los Angeles Times missed in its own back yard. South Central L.A. at the time, at least as depicted in the film with scenes of a drugged-out population, was awash in the scourge of the crack cocaine epidemic. Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles is shown in news clips enraged that her community has been devastated willfully and consciously by the pure evil of our own government.

The film is especially effective at showing how insidiously the CIA dredges up past indiscretions on Webb’s part so as to portray him as unstable, unreliable, and perhaps too inventive with his sources. The national press, one major newspaper after another across the country, starts making the story not about drugs, guns, contras and Oliver North, but about Webb himself. The New York Times and the Washington Post (and its unnamed recently departed executive editor Ben Bradlee) played their part loyally. These famous bloodhounds in search of the truth that brought us the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal protected the government, partly out of professional jealousy of a provincial newssheet, and partly to assure future access to sources within the Beltway.

Kill the Messenger adheres closely to familiar Hollywood mid-level thriller stylistic flourishes that might leave some in the audience yearning for the kind of storytelling we’ve seen in such transcendent cinema as Costa-Gavras’s Z or Haskell Wexler’s 1969 Medium Cool, an enduring reflection on journalistic ethics set against the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Messenger‘s musical score fits more the mold of All the President’s Men: heavy, tension-inducing electronics and percussion with low, ominous, reverberant bass notes, predictable, commercial and obvious.

The film clings tightly to the facts of Gary Webb’s real-life drama, originally detailed in the 2006 book Kill the Messenger by Nick Schou, and Webb’s own 1998 volume, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, which contains an introduction by Rep. Maxine Waters. The tale is told with convincing portrayals of Webb by Jeremy Renner, Sue Webb by Rosemarie DeWitt, Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos by Oliver Platt, the son Ian Webb by Lucan Hedges, and a riveting appearance by Michael Kenneth Williams as L.A. drug dealer Freeway Ricky Ross. The story is brought to life with contemporary clippings, headlines, TV news segments and voiceovers.

About that word “contemporary”: In fact there are two stories occurring a decade apart that we are watching. Webb’s articles, published in 1996, during the Bill Clinton years, referred to events that took place under Ronald Reagan, two presidents before him, in the mid-1980s. Those not intimately familiar with this saga may come away confused by the conflation of a present-tense you-are-there sensibility with news flashbacks.

Through one lens one might question this mash-up of time frames. But through another lens one appreciates that all that has occurred before our eyes is of a piece. We need only look back to the muckrakers and Daniel Ellsberg, and forward to Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, not to mention courageous newsroom reporters such as the New York Times‘ James Risen, alternate media giants such as Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Jeremy Scahill, bloggers too numerous to mention, and filmmakers and documentarians such as Michael Moore and Laura Poitras, to see to what lengths governments will go to keep their programs and policies far away from the light of day.

This passion play is a piece of our nation’s recent and ongoing history that begs to be told to a wide audience.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.

Dale Greenfield
Dale Greenfield

Dale Greenfield is a Licensed Marriage Family and Child Therapist (LMFT), University Lecturer on The Psychology and Neuroscience of Film, and writes reviews for People's World and LA Progressive.