The title “Kill the Messenger” should strike audiences as an inadequate description of the problem facing investigative journalist Gary Webb. More than just a messenger, Webb uncovered and wrote a story about the CIA’s protection of known drug traffickers who supplied money for the Nicaraguan Contras. Also, neither the CIA nor the American media killed Webb – they just ruined his life.

Kill the Messenger

Ann Arbor 20
Focus Features

Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”) delivers a solid performance as Webb, who is reporting for the San Jose Mercury News when a source leads him to Danilo Blandón, the Nicaraguan “Santa Claus” of cocaine. Blandón leads Webb to a Nicaraguan prison where the journalist bribes his way in to see Norwin Meneses, a major drug trafficker who attests to receiving CIA protection in exchange for his contributions to the Contras. Webb concludes that when Congress blocked the direct funding of the Nicaraguan rebels in the 1980s, part of the Reagan administration’s secret plan to fund the group included using profits from Nicaraguan cocaine sold in major American cities such as Los Angeles.

However, when Webb ignores CIA pressure and publishes his findings with the provocative title “Dark Alliances,” many major newspapers seek to discredit him. Webb fails to find a CIA staffer who will talk, one source disappears and another rescinds his statements. Webb and his family grow apart. San Jose Mercury News publishes an apology for the story and Webb has to quit his job after they reassign him to the Cupertino desk, a 150-mile commute meant to keep him out of trouble.

The only problem with the film is that the government conspiracy detailed in the first half of the plot description proves more interesting than the media conspiracy in the second. While the price Webb paid for his investigative journalism serves as an integral part of the story, it fails to match up to the scandal of a vocally anti-drug administration that knowingly allowed the sale of cocaine in the United States. Simply put, the film loses momentum instead of gaining it.

While the many scenes of Webb with his wife and children build sympathy for the character, they aren’t poignant enough to push ‘CIA cocaine scandal’ from the viewer’s mind. “Kill the Messenger” even throws in a ‘based on a true story’ scene where Ray Liotta (“The Place Beyond the Pines”) plays an ex-CIA spook who breaks into Webb’s apartment to confirm the story off the record. Unfortunately, it just feels forced.

While Webb certainly deserves the redemption “Kill the Messenger” provides him, I don’t think he deserves the ‘based on a true story’ character flaws meant to make the film more entertaining. He exposed a true CIA scandal, confirmed in 1998 by released CIA documents, and the larger newspapers flogged him for it. Sadly, it may be a little late for redemption: in 2004, Gary Webb was found with two bullet wounds in his head. The coroner’s office ruled it a suicide. Despite excellent reporting, Webb had never found another job at a daily newspaper.

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