'Kill the Messenger': Truth in Headlines

Even as you know the US government can be brutal in its retributions, you're also left with a set of images that are a bit too mythic or contrived.

Kill the Messenger

Director: Michael Cuesta
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lucas Hedges, Michael K. Williams, Tim Blake Nelson, Paz Vega, Michael Sheen, Oliver Platt, Andy Garcia, Yul Vazquez, Dan Futterman, Richard Schiff, Ray Liotta
Rated: R
Studio: Focus Features
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-10-10 (Limited release)
UK date: 2015-03-06 (General release)

"What you found here, Gary, is a monster." Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) looks up from his motel room bed at the man telling him what he already knows. That man is played by Ray Liotta, and he's showed up, in the wee hours to assure Gary that he's right. He's also here to tell Gary that it doesn't matter.

It's late in Kill the Messenger, and Gary probably knows this too, that it doesn't matter. You certainly know it. Gary's story here is based on that of the real life San Jose Mercury News journalist who wrote a 1996 three-part series, “Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion", tracing the Contras' sales of crack cocaine to finance their war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The story suggested the CIA knew about this at the time, during the mid-'80s, a suggestion the agency rejected with considerable force even a decade later. Thus Gary, in the film, is exiled to the paper's storefront office in Cupertino, missing his estranged family back in San Jose and drinking himself to sleep.

When the mysterious ex-operative, named John, shows up in the wee hours, Gary is at first astounded. "I was there," John says, but still, like every other agency representative Gary has interviewed, he can't go on the record. He's here, he says, "to confess", but only for Gary and, of course, for you, so that you can feel even more deeply Gary's frustration. That's not to say you need this prodding, for you know that the story is true, and moreover, that the Reagan administration was also supporting the Contras by trading arms for hostages with Iran. You know that even if Gary doesn't have this piece yet, his work leads directly to that revelation, namely, that the US government is lying.

While Gary's initial work on the story appears dogged and dangerous in Kill the Messenger, from the moment he's solicited to investigate by a dealer's very red-lipped girlfriend (Paz Vega) to his interview in a Nicaraguan prison with the cartel boss Menses (Andy Garcia). The story Gary publishes earns his paper and its editors (Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) all kinds of kudos, not to mention loving approval from his wife Sue (Rosemary DeWitt) and teenage son Eric (Matthew Lintz). He's cautioned beforehand by a DC official named Weil (Michael Sheen) with personal knowledge of the '80s shenanigans (however true this bit might be, it's rendered in a flatly clichéd scene, as the men meet outside on a bench by DC monuments, lowering their heads when passersby come near). But still, Gary and his editors are somehow surprised when, as Weil puts it, he is "controversialized", which is to say, the agency takes up the film's titular mission, smearing his name and undermining his work.

The resulting exposure and trauma, the abject wrecking of Gary's life, won't be surprising to viewers with even passing knowledge of All the President's Men or Three Days of the Condor. Still, Michael Cuesta's film focuses specifically on the inability of the "free" press to fight back, which makes it very unlike those previous versions of intrepid reporters taking it to the corporate and government villains. In fact, these targets remain off-screen here.

Instead, you see increasingly painful consequences for Gary's pursuit of what he calls "truth". even as he admits to Eric that he has had his own troubles with just that. When Gary begins explaining a long-ago mistake, the boy looks at him, his face red and eyes wet: "You sound like a writer writing." Indeed, this is a problem that besets the film. In order to make sense, to make events follow from one another, to connect personal and professional storylines, Kill the Messenger does what movies tend to do. It streamlines, it consolidates, it invents -- all to get to a certain kind of truth, heartfelt, harrowing, and effective.

Sue sees Gary's pursuit in a number of contexts, including the one that has most to do with her. As he worries over whether he's made wrong choice in being so single-minded on this, the biggest story he'll ever have, putting himself and the family at risk. "You're who you always were, Gary," she says, her face unfixed in a distressing close-up, "No regret, no blame, no judgment, just the facts." Someone's facts, anyway. If this movie makes anything clear, it's that facts are ever revised and exploited, omitted and rearranged. Of course the movie does this too. The question is, to what end?

One overarching storyline in this rearrangement is loss. You know, from the moment that Gary is triumphant over the initial publication of "Dark Alliance," popping champagne and feeling righteous, that this moment won't last. Indeed, Gary loses everything from his family to his beloved rebuilt motorcycle, vanished without a trace from the motel parking lots, in a scene that emphasizes his horror and helplessness, as long shots set him against tourists in terry robes, watching from poolside as he slams his fist through the window of his green TR6, also beloved.

Such moments make Gary's experience seem especially immediate while making the unseen forces that much more monstrous. And this speaks to another storyline, one about the elusiveness and obviousness of truth. Even as you believe Gary because you've seen what he sees, because his truth is yours, even as you know the US government can be brutal in its retributions, you're left also with a set of images that are a bit too mythic or contrived, "like a writer writing". Certainly, the Ray Liotta moment is one of these. And the rest of the movie argues that this moment is true.


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