Tuesday, September 22, 2015
This is a movie that will please no one who has first-hand acquaintance with any of the people supposedly portrayed in it, but the real problem with Kill the Messenger is that it has three great stories to tell and fails to tell any of them well. The first story is the one Gary Webb thought he had broken: the CIA connection to the crack cocaine epidemic. Given the complexity and range of that story, which will probably never be fully and accurately told, it's not surprising that the movie fails to do it justice. The second story is that of the frenzied politics of journalism, a story that probably holds little interest to anyone not involved in journalism and is hard to dramatize because there are so few clear-cut heroes and villains to be found in it. (And in any case, it has been superseded by another story: the slow demise of print journalism.) And finally, there's the story of the way reporter Gary Webb's involvement in the other two stories sent his life into a downward spiral. This is the story the movie chooses to concentrate on, but it does so in such a heavy-handed, cliché-raddled way, particularly with its focus on Webb's relationship with his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and teenage son (Lucas Hedges), that it doesn't make the tragic impact that it could have. I never met Gary Webb, and when the Sturm und Drang of "Dark Alliance" was taking place in the newsroom at the Mercury News, I was busy doing my thing in a far corner on the third floor back of the Merc's Ridder Park Drive plant. I recall that on the day the first story in the series appeared, a colleague said, "Well, Gary Webb just won us another Pulitzer." That was, of course, before the shit flung by the big papers in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles hit the fan. But it also revealed something about the way Pulitzer fever infected the Mercury News, as it does other newspapers. Webb was a victim of it, as was the Merc. There are things to like about the movie, mostly having to do with its performers, starting with Jeremy Renner as Webb. It's also good to see underused actors like Andy Garcia and Ray Liotta, and while nobody who knows the real Jerry Ceppos would ever have chosen Oliver Platt to play him, Platt does a good job of playing a man caught up in a whirlwind of competing pressures and managing to keep his head.