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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Kill the Messenger movie review: all the news that’s fit to quash

Kill the Messenger green light

A passionate and intense drama — fueled by a fierce Jeremy Renner — that furiously underscores the problem of lickspittle corporate “journalism.”
I’m “biast” (pro): love Jeremy Renner; predisposed to be sympathetic to freedom-of-the-press theme

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Imagine an All the President’s Men type of scenario, except in addition to the shadowy governmental MIBs trying to intimidate and shut up the intrepid investigative journalist, his newspaper colleagues also throw him under a bus. This is basically what happened to San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb in the wake of his 1996 series of articles called “Dark Alliance” — later expanded into a book of the same name [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] [iTunes U.S.][iTunes U.K.] — detailing how the CIA turned a blind eye as, and sometimes actively assisted, the anti-Communist Nicaraguan rebels known as the Contras shipped cocaine into the United States and used the profits to fund their war. This wasn’t exactly new news at the time, but no one else had run it down and turned it into a Big Story… and, as this angry film suggests, it was perhaps professional jealousy at being shown up that prompted the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post to tear Webb’s work apart to the point of deliberately misinterpreting and outright lying about what Webb had uncovered and how he presented it. In the wake of this pressure from the big boys, even Webb’s Mercury News bosses backpedaled on him, publishing a partial retraction that was arguably completely unjustifiable but which certainly amounted to an inexcusable apology for doing aggressive journalism.

The most fascinating thing about this passionate and intense drama — fueled by a fierce performance by Jeremy Renner (American Hustle, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) as Webb — is how it furiously underscores the problem of lickspittle corporate “journalism” that kowtows to power instead of speaking truth to it. Were the Times and the Post merely pissed off at having missed a big story? Or were they carrying water for the CIA when they pounced on Webb instead of pouncing on what he had reported? The ironies are many and layered: Webb didn’t have sources inside the CIA, because, you know, it’s an agency that is all about secretive skullduggery; Times and Post editors did have sources (who would of course deny Webb’s reportage, even though Webb was later vindicated), so it was in their best interests to do whatever they needed to do in order to maintain that access. The freedom Webb had to do his reporting, unbeholden to powerful interests, was the very noose that was used to hang him.

The ultimate irony, perhaps, is that, 20 years later, the horrible truths that Webb’s work revealed have become cynically accepted as unalterable reality. Oh, the CIA helped turned the streets of American cities into drug-fueled war zones that chew up mostly poor and disproportionately black Americans, and that’s even before it feeds them into the meatgrinder that is the “War on Drugs” and funnels them into a for-profit prison system? You don’t say? *shrug* I care, maybe you care, but shouting this from the rooftops — as by making an entertaining suspense drama about it starring one of the guys from the biggest superhero franchise ever — doesn’t seem to make a lick of difference. The Powers That Be don’t need to kill the messenger if hardly anyone cares what he has to say, and those few who do care have no way to affect any change.


green light 4 stars

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Kill the Messenger (2014)
US/Can release: Oct 10 2014
UK/Ire release: Mar 06 2015

MPAA: rated R for language and drug content
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, drug use, drug references)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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  • LaSargenta

    I really regretted missing this in theaters, have been meaning to make time to watch on Netflix if still there.

  • Jurgan

    Kind of sounds like Network. Well, not that much, but it shares some themes.

  • iakobos

    Excellent review. I just watched the movie last night. I responded below with a few observations of my own.

    “Or were they carrying water for the CIA when they pounced on Webb instead of pouncing on what he had reported?”

    Bingo, this is, IMHO, precisely what happened. You don’t continue getting access to the powers that be if you bite the hand that feeds you. Thus, it took a small newspaper man with nothing to lose, though he lost everything, to connect the dots. The giant corporate media entities are little more than a mouthpiece for the rulers in D.C.

    This whole story is a huge shame and massive blight on the history of America. “..the CIA helped turned the streets of American cities into drug-fueled war zones that chew up mostly poor and disproportionately black Americans, and that’s even before it feeds them into the meatgrinder that is the “War on Drugs” and funnels them into a for-profit prison system? You don’t say? *shrug* I care, maybe you care.” I care. But like you say there is little any of us can do about it other than spread the word and preach the truth.

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