Skip to main content

National security and crack cocaine in the same sentence? Does that not sound strange to you?

Kill the Messenger
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Is Kill the Messenger Peter (“I think that any rational person would think that Oswald acted alone”) Landesman’s atonement for whitewashing the JFK assassination as the actions of a lone gunman in Parkland? Probably not, but leaping from one adaptation that is extremely anti-conspiratorial to one that is extremely pro- (to the point where it includes an impartial-but-leading end text about it’s real-life protagonist’s death, although screenwriter Landesman believes it to be suicide) is at least curious. Maybe, as a former journalist, he just likes provocative texts (although most found Parkland dissatisfying to some degree, regardless of its take on the events at Dealey Plaza), since he’s now moved on to his sophomore directorial piece, also based on reportage and cover-ups, Concussion. Michael Suerra’s film, though, whatever one might have been led to expect from an “Oswald did it” guy, has its undeniable knives out for an establishment naturally disposed to cover up their dirty deeds and destroy the lives of anyone who dares to question such behaviour.


The process of public dismemberment Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is subjected to, in the aftermath of the Dark Alliance story that (in the movie) garners him journalist of the year, is pretty much exactly the kind of tactic set out in Owen Jones’ The Establishment with regard to the machinations and closing of ranks between media and government; its de rigueur when the latter’s dominance comes under thereat. Sure, Jones’ is at pains to poo-poo the dirty word “conspiracy”. But then, he has to; this is an age where anyone merely implying its possibility in any context will be instantly smeared. It’s a dirty word. Even Landesman (who, to re-emphasise, since it cannot be enough, backed the “Oswald did it alone” version of events, a stance also backed by all-American boy Tom Hanks as producer) uses stock footage to emphasise the ludicrousness of making this an off-limits conversation when he shows former CIA officer Duane Clarridge claiming “There’s never been a conspiracy in this country!


Landesman adapted the books of Webb and Nick Schou (with which the movie shares a title), centring on Webb’s investigation that exposed the complicity of the CIA in facilitating the supply of cocaine (and consequently crack-cocaine) to the US as a means to support and arm the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The machinations of the CIA are portrayed as predictably morally inert, of course, but despite ploughing a well-worn furrow, Suerra ensures the first part of the picture, documenting an intrepid journalist getting a nose for a good story and following it wherever it goes, is gripping and energising, the way this sort of exposé should be.


The real meat, and outrage, though, comes during the second half, much less to do with an agency which no one has any illusions about than it is an indictment of the media behemoth, undermining any notions of integrity or indeed its entire raison d’être through failing to support Webb, willingly consorting with CIA puppet masters, and conspiring to destroy his reputation in an almost offhand tried-and tested fashion.


The are, of course, doubters as to Webb’s facility with facts, and it probably doesn’t help here that the movie compresses the range and extent of his on-going investigation (the way it appears, Webb posted the one piece and was then hamstrung in his efforts to follow it up, with his editors were very quick to give him to the wolves, although they undoubtedly did eventually). But then, this is a movie, not a documentary (although repositioning Webb’s Pulitzer Prize as related to his reporting of the Dark Alliance story goes rather beyond creative licence).


The movie coda suggests Webb was vindicated by the various official reports into his allegations, although their conclusions were actually very far from an endorsement. But, as the history of official investigations has a tendency to show, “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” Webb’s awards speech in the movie appears to be taken from a chapter he wrote in an anthology of press criticism, where he observes that his naivety about the rigour of the newspaper industry was down to the simple fact that “I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress”.


After all, the Afghanistan opium trade has bloomed since the US military took charge there, and before Nicaragua there were the CIA’s operations during the Vietnam War. Webb may merely to have been unfortunate enough not to realise that it’s unwise to pursue a story unless someone somewhere in the establishment has an interest in that story getting out. As noted, Landesman has come down against the idea that Webb was killed as retribution for his investigation (admittedly, all that time later does put him in the ballpark of no longer being pertinent or a threat, although who knows how long grudges are held), but it’s also implied that any validation for Webb’s claims in the Justice Department report went ignored due to the suspect timeliness of Monica Lewinsky scandal.


The manner in which presumed bastions of journalism, the New York Post and Washington Post roasted Webb as a sacrificial lamb, whether in revenge for a story they completely missed or because the CIA bade them to (the movie flirts with both, but ultimately comes down in favour of the latter as the chief carrot) makes this something of a counterpoint to the glorious celebration of the press depicted in All the President’s Men. There are a few pictures coming out soon that illustrate an increasingly fraught world for notions of the free press (notably Truth and Spotlight, flipsides of success and failure), but Kill the Messenger has definitely got in there first.


It does lead the cynic to wonder, was Watergate such a triumph of reporting or did it become such a big story because it suited the broader establishment’s (not Nixon’s obviously) purposes. Likewise, one wonders how this corporate media bias works when one sees The Guardian riding on the acclaim of their Edward Snowden reportage, but then siding against anyone who might rock the neoliberal establishment boat (be it Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, the latter however tentatively). Is a story allowed to snowball only when it plays into a long-term plan?


Kill the Messenger is expertly cast, wisely borrowing the Oliver Stone JFK trick (since much used in true-life tales with potentially confusing casts of characters) of populating its line up with familiar faces. Renner’s very good, a reminder that he’s a much more interesting performer when he isn’t in big studio vehicles (he doesn’t elicit the sympathy of a classic movie star, so such roles aren’t usually a good fit for him). Rosemarie DeWitt is typically great as Webb’s long-suffering wife, although, while the disintegration of Webb’s home life is entirely relevant, it does sometimes overstep the bounds of good taste (all the overcooked bits with his son doing up an old motorbike).


Tim Blake Nelson, Robert Patrick, Michael K Williams, Andy Garcia, Barry Pepper, Richard Schiff, Ray Liotta (as the inevitable Deep Throat), Michael Sheen (whose Fred Weil warns Webb of what will lie in store for him; he will be “controversialised”, such that “No one remembers what you found, and they remember you”). Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are particularly good as the editing duo who initially show Webb support (the publishing of his story is depicted as the high before the inevitable comedown) only to close ranks and protect their own backs. As Webb accuses, “You become a paper that tells the truth only when you fucking feel like it”.


Director Michael Cuesta has couple of prior features under his belt, but has mostly hitherto made his bed in television, including Dexter and Homeland (is racist). Kill the Messenger is confident and economical, taking in the scope of international location hoping and a broad cast with deceptive ease. He occasionally resorts to cliché (all those shots of Webb speeding from location to location), but generally knows exactly how to exert and maintain a grip. The conversation behind the details of Webb’s story will continue to be debated (but who are those giving the CIA the benefit of the doubt trying to kid, right?) but Kill the Messenger’s main achievement is its convincing portrait of how the one reporting the story becomes the story, hung out to dry in order to preserve the status quo. One might suggest that, by making the movie about Webb, the picture inadvertently offers a continuation of that misdirected conversation. But, if it does, it’s probably a reasonable sacrifice, attempting as it does to redress the balance in favour of its maligned protagonist.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

Ours is the richest banking house in Europe, and we’re still being kicked.

The House of Rothschild (1934) (SPOILERS) Fox’s Rothschild family propaganda pic does a pretty good job presenting the clan as poor, maligned, oppressed Jews who fought back in the only way available to them: making money, lots of lovely money! Indeed, it occurred to me watching The House of Rothschild , that for all its inclusion of a rotter of a Nazi stand-in (played by Boris Karloff), Hitler must have just loved the movie, as it’s essentially paying the family the compliment of being very very good at doing their very best to make money from everyone left, right and centre. It’s thus unsurprising to learn that a scene was used in the anti-Semitic (you might guess as much from the title) The Eternal Jew .

No, I ain’t a good man. I ain’t the worst either.

A Perfect World (1993) (SPOILERS) It’s easy to assume, retrospectively, that Clint’s career renaissance continued uninterrupted from Unforgiven to, pretty much, now, with his workhorse output ensuring he was never more than a movie away from another success. The nineties weren’t such a sure thing, though. Follow-up In the Line of Fire , a (by then) very rare actor-for-hire gig, made him seem like a new-found sexagenarian box office draw, having last mustered a dependably keen audience response as far back as 1986 and Heartbreak Ridge . But at home, at least, only The Bridges of Madison County – which he took over as director at a late stage, having already agreed to star – and the not-inexpensive Space Cowboys really scored before his real feted streak began with Mystic River. However, there was another movie in there that did strong business. Just not in the US: A Perfect World .