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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …