Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Price of Truth: Kill the Messenger

Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb in Kill the Messenger

If last summer’s scenes from Ferguson, M.O. – the corpse of a black man lying in the street; cops armoured up like special forces; residents rioting in a failed neighborhood – drew our outrage, they didn’t earn our surprise. The whole affair was just yet another installment of the forces of law and order versus America’s poor and marginalized – those pictures could have been L.A. in the wake of Rodney King, or the whole country after the killing of Dr. King. With Kill the Messenger, director Michael Cuesta shines the spotlight on a particularly appalling chapter of this saga, telling the story of Gary Webb, a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. America’s “War on Drugs” ranks as one of its most self-destructive and inept policies in history; through it, criminal law has led to social engineering, as entire urban enclaves have crumbled due to the cycling of its young men of color in and out of prison on possession charges. Through Webb, Cuesta revisits an even darker wrinkle in this narrative. But what starts out as a moderately compelling investigative thriller turns into an even more thoughtful, ruminative portrait of a crusading reporter, his private battles, and what it means to have integrity.

In the mid-1990s, Webb published a series of articles that disclosed a sensational conspiracy: the C.I.A. knowingly turned a blind eye to drug cartels operating in the U.S. in exchange for using the cartels’ profits to fund the agency’s dirty wars in Central America. Sponsoring the Contras to fight legitimate leftist governments was scandalous enough – it nearly brought down Ronald Reagan in disgrace. But colluding with a cartel to shock release crack in America’s own streets–and not just any streets, mind you, but those of the black ghetto – went beyond the pale. It was also criminal in the highest degree. Cuesta erects the backdrop of the crack epidemic and Contra affair, then cuts to Webb’s story. He knows, from his terrific work as a producer and director of the Showtime series Homeland, that action is character. He hews closely to the driving narrative, making a lean movie that’s almost the inverse of his television project: here, the C.I.A. are unquestionably the dark nemesis.

They lie in the shadows for the most part – Webb takes center stage. As embodied by Jeremy Renner, Webb’s a variant of the hard-boiled reporter and crack investigator. He’s also, paradoxically, hip, relaxed, and idealistic. He carries an almost libertarian belief in civil liberties and suspicion of government intrusion. When his family complains that his latest byline was on a story about drug dealers, he’s quick with his casual reply: “Alleged drug dealers, with rights.” Cruising on his hog, enjoying the occasional joint with his wife, Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt), he’s also contented family man and rising star. But then his reporting on the war on drugs sparks a lead on a much bigger story. Webb finds himself attending a jury trial in which he learns that, Danilo Blandon – a key witness and the head of one of the largest cartels – is actually being protected by the Feds. The layers of the story peel away like an onion as Webb digs deeper, and you share in his dizziness and foreboding. When he first hears that the C.I.A. are using the cartel to funnel arms and cash to their paramilitary proxies, he of course can hardly believe it.

But he goes down the rabbit hole and finds himself in a Nicaraguan jail, face to face with one Norwin Meneses, the Agency’s contact on the ground during its operations. Andy Garcia portrays the kingpin, and his cool arrogance serves him well here. In his white suit and Panama hat, Meneses is like a suave Yacht Club fat cat, with the jail as his castle. He turns the prison yard into his own driving range, teeing off with an iron while he tells Webb of supplying cocaine to Blandon and the Feds. In Garcia’s slick performance, we get a glimpse of all the corrupt Latin oligarchs that the U.S. enabled and enriched in the name of fighting communism. Throughout the film’s first half, Cuesta does an admirable job of creating the requisite suspense, drawing a righteous hero, and evoking the sinister sense that this thing goes all the way to the top. Sure enough, Webb journeys to the heart of the lions’ den, meeting with Fred Weil (Michael Sheen) in Washington, D.C. A former congressional aide, Weil’s old boss started digging up the same dirt as Webb, only to be cowed into silence by the Agency. He warns Webb about what he’s getting into, with the weighty declaration,“Some stories are just too true to tell.” Sheen pulls off the American accent effortlessly, while working in a deep earnestness to his scenes. He single-handedly raises the stakes. Cuesta evokes a disturbing mood without any frills and flashes, just the tried and true tools of the trade. When Gary finds himself followed into a parking lot at night (a hat-tip to All the President’s Men and State of Play) you’re chilled to the bone by nothing else than the slowed pace, hushed atmosphere, and physicalized fear that Renner shoots off.

Webb’s determined to tell the story, though. He can’t shake the memory of his visit to the Watts slum of L.A. The sight of the emaciated denizens smoking crack supplied by their own government – which was then imprisoning them for it – shocks him. It shocks him a bit too much, in fact – Webb’s been around the block enough that such a revelation shouldn’t stun. And a response of simmering anger would serve the narrative better. For that matter, the movie doesn’t allow the implications of Webb’s discovery to sink in and simmer. The big idea doesn’t have enough pop when he uncorks it. The film gets muddled for a spell. Cuesta rushes through some narrative shifts in the middle – the film gets a bit frenzied as it moves from Webb’s celebrating the publication of his articles, to the backlash against him from the media establishment, who don’t take lightly to being out-reported by a no-name muckraker from San Jose. Suddenly Gary finds himself the story, not the government.

Oliver Platt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jeremy Renner in Kill the Messenger

The film quickly regains its footing, landing here on an unexpected turn in focus. The second half is less an investigative thriller as it is a character study, and an illustration of the movie’s title. Gary comes under siege as the government hits back through its various mouthpieces. At first, his journalistic ethics come under fire –other journalists and even his own editorial staff begin to question the sources for his story, some of whom mysteriously disappear in the jungles of Central America. But then the consequences tumble further, into the sanctity of his home. The C.I.A. dog and spook him, and then his enemies dredge up a sordid episode from his past. His marriage strains under the weight of these revelations, and Renner and DeWitt really shine as a couple buckling under old wounds and groping to forgive, forget, and move on again. The character assassination takes an even steeper toll on his eldest son, the teenaged Ian (Lucas Hedges). Gary was a hero in his eyes, and the scene where the boy confronts his dad about his past failings devastates you. Renner strikes an almost dispassionate stance for much of the film, part of Gary’s unapologetic, forward-driving approach to life. It’s damn effective, but here it deserts him, as the scene requires that he give more of himself emotionally. Lucas Hedges sure does, though. The way he conveys his disappointment in his dad, through hot tears, just breaks your heart. I can’t recall seeing a more honest, searing cinematic rendering of a pivotal father-son moment (here, the revelation that your dad’s imperfect).

In fact, the movie’s replete with many fine small and supporting performances from its cast of thousands. Barry Pepper plays the Federal prosecutor who initially tries to stonewall Webb. His perfectly coiffed dome, drawn face, and bland suit bespeak an inner corruption that stands in perfect contrast to Gary’s tousled authenticity. The way Pepper employs the lawyerly lingo to stuff up the truth is a case study in selling out. Paz Vega is practically walking sex as the drug lord girlfriend who puts Webb onto the conspiracy. He knows he’s being seduced, but she plays him even more than he realizes. Oliver Platt is right casting as Gary’s chief editor, who champions him initially only to abandon him when the heat turns up, banishing him to a California backwater to report on the digestive malfunctions of horses. Richard Schiff portrays his opposite of sorts over at The Washington Post, where he functions as a symbol of the government-coddled media establishment. But Schiff’s careful to play the man as a shrewd journalist suspicious of bullshit, rather than some mustache-twisting melodramatic villain. He immediately doubts the veracity of Webb’s claims, and leads the charge to find holes in the story. Robert Patrick has about five seconds of screen time at the beginning, but he seems to be thoroughly enjoying getting arrested in his boxers and bathrobe, a bimbo bouncing at his side. Even Ray Liotta shows up, who seems to be everywhere these days. As he’s doing of late, he injects a jolt of intensity and menace as he stalks into Webb’s life, a veteran of the C.I.A.’s dark side. These performers are all business, and their no-frills approach to their craft yields a bumper crop of fine pieces of acting. The human material is always most interesting in any movie, and the wealth of it here work really makes this one.

At the center of that humanity and those performances are Jeremy Renner and Rosemarie DeWitt. As she does in Rachel Getting Married, The Company Men, and Mad Men, DeWitt occupies the position of a well-adjusted middle-aged woman, comfortable in her own skin. She’s sexual, sensual, and sensitive in a way that’s perfectly normative, attuned to her man yet with a strength, independence, and sensibility. She’s willing to compensate for his flaws, but hold him to his better self, too. She gets better and better as the film progresses, especially strong in the latter scenes when their marriage is on the rocks. She’s got great chemistry with Renner; in fact, few actresses exude such consistent vulnerability with with their onscreen lovers. With his touch of hyperactivity, mental overdrive, and no-bullshit attitude, Renner’s also pitched well for a dogged, relentless professional who doesn’t stand on ceremony. He brings his trademark physicality to the part, wiry and athletic; he’s up for the tireless thrill of the chase. And he really becomes your hero, especially in the scene where he’s up against the entire editorial staff of his newspaper. The sight of a man ready to be crucified on his own principles rather than betray the truth harks back to public crusaders of another era. And with his connection to Central America, Renner also takes up the mantle of Nick Nolte’s war correspondent from 1983’s Under Fire. He’s not perfect, and the movie wisely gives him a moment of confession of failure – he has doubts like all of us.

But it also gives him a stirring valedictory that reminds you that professions like journalism are meant to serve the public good, and the truth. In the wrong hands, the scene could descend to cheap didacticism and sentimentality. With Renner in command, though, it breaks your heart and makes you a believer for a minute. This movie never offers its audience easy answers or pat resolutions – it never gives in to our desire for just deserts. At the coda, Cuesta tries to tie it back to the narcotic narrative, but it’s pointless. The final image, of a battered Webb rising slowly up an escalator out of view, leaves you haunted. He is the real story, after all. And when giving the kind of performance that an actor like Renner does, the sight of one man paying the price for justice says everything. Kill the Messenger is a well-wrought, admirably crafted thriller that features a plethora of fine acting jobs.

 Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain.

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