Film: Kill the Messenger

The fact that I’m still pondering the historical veracity of Kill the Messenger (2014) is a good sign that it has successfully made its point as a post-truth era conspiracy thriller. In 1996, investigative journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is writing for the San Jose Mercury News when the seed of a major story falls into his lap: a mistakenly released grand jury transcript implicating a notorious drug trafficker as a government informant. Pursuing the story, Webb learns that the informant isn’t a deep-cover agent; he is, in fact, a legitimate drug kingpin, in bed with the CIA. The subsequent investigation takes Webb across the United States and Central America pursuing dangerous leads, and eventually he exposes the shocking truth: that American intelligence services are facilitating drug smuggling—and fueling the ongoing U.S. crack epidemic—in service to an unsanctioned foreign policy initiative. It’s an enormous scandal that elevates Webb’s journalistic profile, and looks to be the crowning achievement of his career, until the CIA targets him for retribution, rewriting the narrative to discredit his work and blow up his life.

Kill the Messenger is the rare biopic that made me more interested in the history rather than less. While it clearly sides with Webb’s account of a major government corruption conspiracy—and the details certainly ring true—it introduces enough doubt to make you question the material. Ironically, of course, that’s exactly what a CIA psy-op of this nature would be meant to accomplish, which gives the whole affair wobbly unreliability. Webb’s reporting earned him a journalist of the year award, but it also derailed his career when retributive reporting exposed holes in his work—and as Webb’s sources disappeared or recanted. Was that as the result of CIA meddling, or Webb’s dubious methods? The film comes down in his favor, but the historical record—a series of a congressional investigations and reports followed—is more circumspect. Either way, it’s a thought-provoking conspiracy thriller scenario that makes for a cracking good story in the vein of classics like The Parallax View. It also benefits from the high-end supporting talent that surrounds Renner, which includes Rosemarie Dewitt, Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Pepper, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, among many others. A solid spy thriller that spins its biopic origins into thought-provoking political commentary.

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