Kill the Messenger

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I’ve always wondered how you can make somebody sit on the edge of their seat watching a movie we already know the outcome of. I was bored to tears watching Apollo 13, and it wasn’t just because I knew they weren’t going to die upon reentry.

It helps that I only knew a little bit about the story journalist Gary Webb wrote, and less about him as a person (the movie blames that on the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal).

The film certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that it clearly came down on Webb’s side of the truth. It wasn’t the political thriller it could’ve been, or all that interesting a biopic.

Webb was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, who got a tip on a case involving a local drug dealer. When he ended up getting duped into being a pawn by the girlfriend of the drug dealer, she throws him a bone. It’s a story about the CIA’s illegal funding of the Nicaraguan contras in the ‘80s. At the time what I remember most, is how people like Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan used his story to point out how crack became the epidemic it was in inner cities.

As someone that took journalism in high school and college, and worked for various publications, I wanted to know more about the mechanics of what went on at this newspaper. As much as I love Oliver Platt as the editor, it got old listening to him and Jeremy Renner (who is amazing in the role), go back and forth about sources. And in the second half of the movie, I was wondering if Webb was having paranoid delusions. I thought more of another Oliver – Mr. Stone.

This could’ve gone down some interesting “All the President’s Men” paths; instead you’re left wondering about why his sources didn’t pan out and what your responsibility is as a reporter if editors or other news agencies question you.

Early on, I was digging the look Renner had for the role – the cool shades, denim shirts, and the feel of Sean Penn in the ‘80s. He’d crank out a Clash or Social Distortion song to get motivated. He’d buy an old motorcycle to rebuild with his son, and drove around in an old MG. That soon started to feel like a caricature.

When things are revealed about his personal life (an affair that lead a woman into suicide), you wonder why this isn’t a more interesting biopic about a very complicated character.

There is an awful lot to like about this movie. First, the cast. Andy Garcia is great a drug kingpin that helps explain how Oliver North and the CIA are involved in all of this. Ray Liotta pops up in a scene.  You also got Michael Sheen, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Tim Blake Nelson.

It’s interesting how it isn’t just the CIA that tries to sabotage Webb’s career. All the other, bigger newspapers that were scooped, start looking into his sources. Yet that didn’t give me any more    sympathy for his character. After all, he’s a muckraker. Why can’t he handle when people are scrutinizing him? If his leads are solid, he has nothing to worry about, right?

Often when I see movies like this, I’d just prefer a documentary was made out of them instead. In this case, it would’ve been more compelling. It would also leave little doubt about the circumstances. Instead we read that there was a suicide, with “two gun shots to the head,” as if we’re supposed to stand up and scream, “Who kills themselves with two gunshots?!”

I went by the assumption that forensics are strong enough now that it would be easily proven if he were murdered. And again, if this downfall made him kill himself, perhaps we weren’t seeing as interesting a movie about this guy as we could’ve.

When I got home I Googled and read everything I could about Webb’s story. It turns out it was probably true, which makes me even angrier about the movie. It also makes me think he probably did use a few BS sources to help tie things together. Heck, if the LA Times assigned over 20 reporters to pick apart this story and it still seems to stand up, why did Webb get so nuts? His own newspaper didn’t even fire him over this. They reassigned him, and he eventually resigned after winning a prestigious award.

There were a handful of compelling scenes and some very smartly written ones. When the editor first gets nervous and questions Webb, it’s solid. There’s no over-the-top yelling, but professionals discussing a situation.

Watching two hours of a guy insisting his story is accurate – just doesn’t make for as important a film as they thought they (one of the “they” being Jeremy Renner, who also produced). And would it have killed Webb to at least admit to one or two of his mistakes? He never does, which makes it a bit harder to buy what he’s selling.

Renner is such a natural actor and is so compelling to watch, this movie is worth checking out.

It gets 3 stars out of 5.

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