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Kill the Messenger

Reporters make fine movie heroes, especially when the plot involves a complicated issue that has been covered up or needs to be explained in depth. The reporter works as an audience surrogate, giving us a human viewpoint for peeling back the layers and adding some charisma and maybe even sex appeal to keep us involved. If this assumes a limited attention span on the part of the audience, well, many fine documentaries never find an audience.

Kill the Messenger is only partly that movie. It’s the story of Gary Webb, the investigative journalist who in 1996 published a series titled “Dark Alliance,” which linked the CIA to the explosion of crack cocaine in American cities via drug traffickers who were helping fund the Nicaraguan contras. (You know, the ones that the Reagan administration sought to arm even though Congress specifically outlawed funding them.)

I apologize for the clumsiness of that sentence, but it’s important to be clear what Webb did and did not claim. He did not state that the CIA supported the drug trade, only that they turned a blind eye to it. Still, given that this took place in the 1980s when Reagan was loudly arguing the “war on drugs” is a damning charge.

The first half of Kill the Messenger details Webb’s investigations, doing what it can to render them understandable in compressed fashion. Webb (played by Jeremy Renner in the liveliest performance I’ve seen him give) is drawn into the story from other leads, and pursues it with trips to Nicaragua to talk to involved parties. The story is published and generates a huge amount of attention, far more than the small newspaper he’s working for (the San Jose Mercury News) has ever received.

But you don’t make accusations of this nature without getting blowback. The CIA denies his findings in interviews to larger newspapers, all of whom seem eager to pass them on. (The film’s implication is that they’re jealous that a small paper got such a scoop.) Webb’s statements are twisted into conclusions he didn’t make, which are then held against him. The substance is never really addressed—why bother when it’s so much easier to engage in character assassination?

Webb, who died in 2004, has had his reporting vindicated. But the attacks against it were inevitable. His findings were based on interviews with drug traffickers and other shadowy figures. At the time no CIA employee was willing to go on the record confirming his information—but who would expect that to happen? Yet that’s exactly what he was damned for.

The difficult thing about Kill the Messenger, and one that I’m not entirely sure director Michael Cuesta (best known for the Showtime series Homeland) meant to make, is that it puts us on the side of a crusading journalist who by the nature of his subject matter is unable to provide proof that would stand up in a court of law. Should we come away from this well-made film assuming that the more the establishment tries to beat down a rogue reporter the more likely it is that he’s right? I think not. There’s no easy answer aside from eternal vigilance in the service of a vigorous and independent news media. For everything that I admired about Kill the Messenger, I worry that the biggest effect it may have will be to feed a cynicism that is choking off any hope that we can rein in the organizations that were built to serve us.

Watch the trailer for Kill the Messenger

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