It’s hard to know what to think about "Kill the Messenger," and this makes it frustrating to watch. It tells the real-life story of Gary Webb, the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News reporter whose series on a "dark alliance" between the CIA and drug dealers made him seem on track to win a Pulitzer Prize. Then he came under attack by other papers for supposedly sloppy reporting, and his own newspaper refused to support him.
The movie has a point of view, which is that Webb was a great reporter, that the big newspapers went after him only because he scooped them, and that his own bosses were spineless individuals, with no right to call themselves journalists. Perhaps some of this is true. Perhaps all of this is true. Who knows? Still, one gets the sense, while watching, that there had to be another side to this story.
Here’s a case of a film that could have been better and more satisfying as a documentary. As a narrative feature, "Kill the Messenger" has no choice but to live up to the demands of drama. But what do you do with a story that must be told, that deserves to be told, but that’s not very good as a story? Alas, true stories are confined to the facts, and the facts here make for the death of drama — a movie that begins as "All the President’s Men Revisited" then shifts into the tale of a besieged fellow and his relationship with his family.
At first things look promising, for Webb and for the movie. As a reporter in the Sacramento bureau, Webb is put on to the story of CIA involvement in drug trafficking by a mystery woman (Paz Vega) and soon finds that everyone he asks about it becomes terrified, clams up, practically runs for the hills. So he knows he is on to something.
If Webb was really prone to that kind of behavior, that might explain things.
|‘KILL THE MESSENGER’
Opens Friday at Kahala 8
With the backing of his newspaper, he goes down to Nicaragua, where he interviews an exuberant drug lord (Andy Garcia) who, while practicing his golf swing in a prison yard, tells him the CIA raised money to back the Nicaraguan contras by selling cocaine and crack in U.S. cities. This is staggering, but then he says something else. In that knowing, pleased-with-himself Andy Garcia way, he tells Webb that he faces the hardest choice of his life: whether to report the story or sit on it. That is, either pass up the scoop of a lifetime or take on the government.
If you’ve ever seen a movie about your own line of work, you know movies almost always get even the most obvious details wrong. But "Kill the Messenger" is pretty accurate, not only in the mechanics of how newspaper stories are generated, but also in showing the dynamic between reporters and editors. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt are convincing as bosses more concerned about pleasing their own bosses than with the fate of American journalism.
Yet something doesn’t quite feel right. The speed with which his colleagues abandon Webb is weird. He seems to command virtually no loyalty. Perhaps everything happened exactly as presented here, but one comes away with the sense that details were left out. There’s one scene that comes out of nowhere: Webb shows up at the home of a boss at 6 a.m., raving almost incoherently.
Jeremy Renner hints at something dark stirring beneath Webb’s surface, but it never quite comes out. "Kill the Messenger" tells an interesting tale, but it’s caught in an odd zone between too Hollywood and not Hollywood enough. If only screenwriters got to choreograph real life.