Kill the Messenger
Is Kill the Messenger Peter (“I think that any rational person would think that Oswald acted alone”) Landesman’s atonement for whitewashing the JFK assassination as the actions of a lone gunman in Parkland?* Probably not, but leaping from one adaptation that is extremely anti-conspiratorial to one that is extremely pro- (to the point where it includes an impartial-but-leading end text about its real-life protagonist’s death, although screenwriter Landesman believes it to be suicide) is at least curious. Maybe, as a former journalist, he just likes provocative texts (although most found Parkland dissatisfying to some degree, regardless of its take on the events at Dealey Plaza), since he’s now moved on to his sophomore directorial piece, also based on reportage and cover-ups, Concussion. Michael Suerra’s film, though, whatever one might have been led to expect from an “Oswald did it” guy, has its undeniable knives out for an establishment naturally disposed to cover up their dirty deeds and destroy the lives of anyone who dares to question such behaviour.
The process of public dismemberment Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is subjected to, in the aftermath of the Dark Alliance story that (in the movie) garners him journalist of the year, is pretty much exactly the kind of tactic set out in Owen Jones’ The Establishment with regard to the machinations and closing of ranks between media and government; its de rigueur when the latter’s dominance comes under threat. Sure, Jones’ is at pains to poo-poo the dirty word “conspiracy”. But then, he has to; this is an age where anyone merely implying its possibility in any context will be instantly smeared. It’s a dirty word. Even Landesman (who, to re-emphasise, since it cannot be enough, backed the “Oswald did it alone” version of events, a stance also backed by all-American boy Tom Hanks as producer) uses stock footage to emphasise the ludicrousness of making this an off-limits conversation when he shows former CIA officer Duane Clarridge claiming “There’s never been a conspiracy in this country!”
Landesman adapted the books of Webb and Nick Schou (with which the movie shares a title), centring on Webb’s investigation that exposed the complicity of the CIA in facilitating the supply of cocaine (and consequently crack-cocaine) to the US as a means to support and arm the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The machinations of the CIA are portrayed as predictably morally inert, of course, but despite ploughing a well-worn furrow, Suerra ensures the first part of the picture, documenting an intrepid journalist getting a nose for a good story and following it wherever it goes, is gripping and energising, the way this sort of exposé should be.
The real meat, and outrage, though, comes during the second half, much less to do with an agency which no one has any illusions about than it is an indictment of the media behemoth, undermining any notions of integrity or indeed its entire raison d’être through failing to support Webb, willingly consorting with CIA puppet masters, and conspiring to destroy his reputation in an almost offhand tried-and tested fashion.
There are, of course, doubters as to Webb’s facility with facts, and it probably doesn’t help here that the movie compresses the range and extent of his on-going investigation (the way it appears, Webb posted the one piece and was then hamstrung in his efforts to follow it up, with his editors were very quick to give him to the wolves, although they undoubtedly did eventually). But then, this is a movie, not a documentary (although repositioning Webb’s Pulitzer Prize as related to his reporting of the Dark Alliance story goes rather beyond creative licence).
The movie coda suggests Webb was vindicated by the various official reports into his allegations, although their conclusions were actually very far from an endorsement. But, as the history of official investigations tends to show, “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” Webb’s awards speech in the movie appears to be taken from a chapter he wrote in an anthology of press criticism, where he observes that his naivety about the rigour of the newspaper industry was down to the simple fact that “I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress”.
After all, the Afghanistan opium trade has bloomed since the US military took charge there, and before Nicaragua there were the CIA’s operations during the Vietnam War. Webb may merely to have been unfortunate enough not to realise that it’s unwise to pursue a story unless someone somewhere in the establishment has an interest in that story getting out. As noted, Landesman has come down against the idea that Webb was killed as retribution for his investigation (admittedly, all that time later does put him in the ballpark of no longer being pertinent or a threat, although who knows how long grudges are held), but it’s also implied that any validation for Webb’s claims in the Justice Department report went ignored due to the suspect timeliness of Monica Lewinsky scandal.
The manner in which presumed bastions of journalism, the New York Post and Washington Post roasted Webb as a sacrificial lamb, whether in revenge for a story they completely missed or because the CIA bade them to (the movie flirts with both, but ultimately comes down in favour of the latter as the chief carrot) makes this something of a counterpoint to the glorious celebration of the press depicted in All the President’s Men. There are a few pictures coming out soon that illustrate an increasingly fraught world for notions of the free press (notably Truth and Spotlight, flipsides of success and failure), but Kill the Messenger has definitely got in there first.
It does lead the cynic to wonder, was Watergate such a triumph of reporting or did it become such a big story because it suited the broader establishment’s (not Nixon’s obviously) purposes? Likewise, one wonders how this corporate media bias works when one sees The Guardian riding on the acclaim of their Edward Snowden reportage, but then siding against anyone who might rock the neoliberal establishment boat (be it Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, the latter however tentatively). Is a story allowed to snowball only when it plays into a long-term plan?**
Kill the Messenger is expertly cast, wisely borrowing the Oliver Stone JFK trick (since much used in true-life tales with potentially confusing casts of characters) of populating its line up with familiar faces. Renner’s very good, a reminder that he’s a much more interesting performer when he isn’t in big studio vehicles (he doesn’t elicit the sympathy of a classic movie star, so such roles aren’t usually a good fit for him). Rosemarie DeWitt is typically great as Webb’s long-suffering wife, although, while the disintegration of Webb’s home life is entirely relevant, it does sometimes overstep the bounds of good taste (all the overcooked bits with his son doing up an old motorbike).
Tim Blake Nelson, Robert Patrick, Michael K Williams, Andy Garcia, Barry Pepper, Richard Schiff, Ray Liotta (as the inevitable Deep Throat), Michael Sheen (whose Fred Weil warns Webb of what will lie in store for him; he will be “controversialised”, such that “No one remembers what you found, and they remember you”). Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are particularly good as the editing duo who initially show Webb support (the publishing of his story is depicted as the high before the inevitable comedown) only to close ranks and protect their own backs. As Webb accuses, “You become a paper that tells the truth only when you fucking feel like it”.
Director Michael Cuesta has couple of prior features under his belt, but has mostly hitherto made his bed in television, including Dexter and Homeland (is racist). Kill the Messenger is confident and economical, taking in the scope of international location hoping and a broad cast with deceptive ease. He occasionally resorts to cliché (all those shots of Webb speeding from location to location), but generally knows exactly how to exert and maintain a grip. The conversation behind the details of Webb’s story will continue to be debated (but who are those giving the CIA the benefit of the doubt trying to kid, right?) but Kill the Messenger’s main achievement is its convincing portrait of how the one reporting the story becomes the story, hung out to dry in order to preserve the status quo. One might suggest that, by making the movie about Webb, the picture inadvertently offers a continuation of that misdirected conversation. But, if it does, it’s probably a reasonable sacrifice, attempting as it does to redress the balance in favour of its maligned protagonist.
*Addendum 10/07/22: With the caveat of, “Assuming JFK was assassinated”.
**Addendum 10/07/22: The answer to these questions is quite obviously: “There is no freedom of the press”.