- May 9, 2003
Kill The Messenger buries the lead on Blu-ray with an edition that offers a solid high definition presentation of a sadly underachieving drama. Based on the work and later life of journalist Gary Webb, the movie wants desperately to be a vindication for him but misses the mark. It’s clear that everyone involved, including star/producer Jeremy Renner and director Michael Cuesta, thought they were making an important statement about a major public event. Unfortunately, the movie is too shrill and self-righteous to appeal to anyone but those who have already lionized Webb. Fans of Jeremy Renner and more casual viewers are advised to tread lightly here. It would definitely help to do a little reading about this subject before assuming that what is being presented in this movie is correct.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French
Run Time: 1 Hr. 52 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy, UltraViolet
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 02/10/2015
The Production Rating: 2/5
“Deep Throat: You let Haldeman slip away.
Deep Throat: You’ve done worse than let Haldeman slip away. You’ve got people feeling sorry for him. I didn’t think that was possible. In a conspiracy like this, you build from the outer edges and go step by step. If you shoot too high and miss, everybody feels more secure. You’ve put the investigation back months.
Woodward: Yes, we know that. And if we’re wrong, we’re resigning. Were we wrong?”
-From the film of All The President’s Men (1976)
There’s a telling moment about 30 minutes into Kill The Messenger. Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) has being taken to South Central Los Angeles. Against the advice of his driver, Webb gets out of the car in the middle of a terrible neighborhood. Watching the local gang members dealing drugs for a minute, Webb stands there with his hands on his hips and takes in the scene. And then he gets back in the car and leaves. Somehow, the viewer is intended to think that this quick visit will tell Webb and the audience all that anyone needs to know about South Central and the crack epidemic that swept the area. And it’s that kind of shallow thinking that sadly dooms what could have been a great movie.
Kill The Messenger has all the ingredients to be a significant movie that picks up major awards and makes a difference in people’s lives. It covers what happened when Gary Webb wrote his “Dark Alliance” series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News in the 1990s and all Hell broke loose from California to Washington DC. (For those who are unaware of this story, I’ll just say that Webb was covering allegations that the CIA permitted members and supporters of the Nicaraguan Contras to bring large amounts of cocaine to the US in the 1980s as part of their funding operations.) Politically, the movie could cover everything from the Contra War to the crack cocaine explosion to the accusations of censorship and bad faith that happened when Webb was attacked by his fellow journalists and even by his own newspaper. This movie also has a heck of a cast in it, with everyone from Andy Garcia to Ray Liotta popping up as Webb gets into deeper and deeper trouble. Unfortunately, for all that, director Michael Cuesta is unable to figure out what movie he wishes to make. Due to the lack of focus, the movie veers from being like a low-rent JFK with shadowy government figures menacing Webb, to a political adventure where Webb journeys everywhere from Washington DC to a Nicaraguan prison, to a personal drama where Webb watches his life crumble around him. Based on Webb’s book Dark Alliance and on alt-journalist Nick Schou’s 2006 book Kill The Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb, the movie is never able to find a focus. There’s no sense of who Webb is other than a generally decent family guy who gets punished for doing the right thing. There’s no sense of why this story was important, or why his fellow journalists attacked him for pushing it. And yet the story is told in such a strident manner in defense of Webb that it makes the shrillness of The Newsroom feel subtle by comparison. One wishes that Michael Cuesta had tried to reach farther below the surface, because an approach this shallow does no justice to any of the issues he thought he was covering. That’s the short version of this review. Readers wishing to skip down to the technical details and the bonus features are encouraged to do so. Readers interested in the subject matter of this film may wish to continue this section.
IN-DEPTH: There could certainly be a gripping movie made from the unhappy life and lonesome death of Gary Webb. Once you strip away all the posturing by everyone around the story, the seeds of the tragedy here become clear. Gary Webb was a local reporter in Northern California, specializing in lower-level government corruption cases. He never made it to any of the Big Three newspapers in the U.S. (the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the LA Times), but he did good work for the lower-tier newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News. Admittedly, Kill The Messenger does show something of both of these ideas, but it makes very little out of the situation. According to people who knew him and worked with him, Webb was a pretty ambitious guy – he saw himself as a bigger reporter than the venue he was working. He wasn’t just trying to write stories; he was trying to make a difference, and while doing so make a bigger splash than the person just writing a fluff piece about where the Mayor had lunch that week. There was definitely an ego at play here – he wasn’t thinking of himself as a humble reporter just trying to work his way through a story. Co-workers of his from before 1996 describe him as a man who was more driven by his passion about a story than about the actual facts – a flaw that would prove fatal in this case. At some point in the mid-90s, Webb stumbled into the middle of what he thought was a breakthrough. He was given materials about potential drug informants who were still active in the drug trade but were not being pursued. His research into that took him various places, including to the realization that these people were members and supporters of the Contras, who the US had backed in the 1980s in their war against the Sandinista government and many of the civilian people of Nicaragua. He also found that the cocaine these people were trafficking in the US had gone through a major dealer in South Central Los Angeles. In talking to multiple drug dealers and informants, Webb was able to draw a fairly direct line between the cocaine being peddled by the Contras and the crack epidemic that had blown up around the country in the 80s and beyond. The problem here is that Webb became convinced he had found a cause/effect relationship between this one stream of cocaine and the larger problem that was happening in the US. As the fact checkers would later point out, he may have revealed one of the pipelines, but he was actively ignoring facts that contradicted his narrative.
IN-DEPTH CONTINUES: Had nobody covered this story before, Gary Webb would indeed have had the breakthrough he thought he did. In reality, much of the story had been covered in the alternative press throughout the 1980s, including stories in the LA Weekly and the Village Voice. The Nation had also run stories and columns on this situation as it was happening. I still remember reading articles in the LA Weekly in the mid-late 80s referring to Adolfo Calero’s “coca-contras”. It was an open secret at the time that the Contras were funding themselves by selling cocaine, and alternative columnists like Alexander Cockburn and Marc Cooper regularly included that detail when excoriating the Reagan Administration for supporting them. In the latter 1980s, a group called the Christic Institute, led by Daniel Sheehan, generated a massive lawsuit that specifically addressed this area, on behalf of journalists Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey. Avirgan was injured in a 1984 bombing in Nicaragua apparently aimed at Contra leader Eden Pastora, a former Sandinista. Sheehan insisted that the bombing was carried out by the CIA and sued multiple Reagan Administration and intelligence community people, including Oliver North and various names that were connected with the Iran/Contra scandal of the late 80s. The Christic Institute alleged wilder and wilder conspiracy notions, where they went all the way back to the JFK assassination. Along the way, they published a piece in 1987 called “The Contra Drug Connection” and piled it in with all the other conspiracy theories. Sheehan gave public talks about the Christic Lawsuit where he initially referred to the CIA defendants as “The Secret Team” and then changed up to call them “The Enterprise”. And while generating as much steam as they could, Sheehan failed to actually provide workable proof about the bombing that could be accepted in a court of law. So in 1989, the whole suit was tossed out of court in a judgment that left the Christic Institute bankrupt. Many alternative journalists were unhappy with this result – particularly as the Christic Institute’s behavior had delegitimized a real story that now would be dismissed as another wild conspiracy theory.
IN-DEPTH CONTINUES: When Gary Webb began his trip down the same path that alternative journalism had been covering ten years earlier, he apparently thought he would be able to protect himself from all the conspiracy theory accusations by listing his sources. He had taken notes of the discussions he’d had with the various contacts and informants and had a strong sense of the narrative he was going to expose. It’s fairly clear that Webb thought this story would catapult him into a much bigger spotlight –something that could take him to a much loftier position. His three-part series, “Dark Alliance” became a flashpoint from the moment that the San Jose Mercury News posted it to their website in August 1996. Effectively ripping open the scab from ten years prior, his stories generated protests around the country, with people accusing the CIA of actively distributing crack cocaine, among other things. (To be fair to Webb, he never said that in his article.) Initially, he was backed up by the staff at his newspaper, with editor Jerry Ceppos supporting him even as the Big Three newspapers geared up to attack not only the story but the journalist who had written it. (Webb hadn’t considered that the Big Three might react badly to his attempt to scoop them – particularly the LA Times, which was purported to have assembled a “Get Gary Webb” team.) After several major broadsides, Ceppos caved, issuing a printed apology which said that an internal investigation showed that Webb had over-reached and could not prove all he had alleged. Webb was demoted from his higher-level position at the Sacramento office to a desk at the tiny Cupertino office, and his attempts to publish follow-up stories to “Dark Alliance” were rejected. He subsequently quit the newspaper and worked with the California State Assembly, returning to the area of rooting out low-level government corruption. When he lost that job in 2003, he tried writing for an alternative newspaper in Sacramento but was unable to earn a living. Facing the loss of his livelihood and his house, and having already seen his marriage collapse, Webb committed suicide in 2004. He left behind a note that read “Tell them I never regretted anything I wrote.” In the aftermath of Webb’s death, alternative journalists across the country defended his work, including Amy Goodman at Democracy Now, Alexander Cockburn at Counterpunch and Nick Schau. Both Cockburn and Schau would write books about what happened with Webb. Cockburn wrote Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press with Jeffrey St. Clair in 1999. Schau, a writer who had contributed to the LA Weekly and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, put out his book, Kill The Messenger, in 2006, two years after Webb’s suicide. Even today, alternative journalists use the story of Webb’s downfall and death as a symbol of what happens when someone tries to wage the “good fight” against a rigged system – as proof that in the current environment, David has no chance against Goliath. (And their point is that if you want to see the system changed, the collective readership has to be the one to change it…)
IN-DEPTH CONCLUDES: Looking over the breadth of the story, there’s a lot of material that could have made for a gripping film. One could go into the nature of Webb’s personality and why he chose to pursue a story like this, even knowing what the stigma was around it. One could go into his drive to achieve greatness in journalism and the sucker punch he got when the Big Three newspapers all chose to attack him and his work. One could go into the idea of someone getting in way over their head but not being able to admit it to themselves or their family. Or one could cover the material from the angle of the conspiracy theories – of how, as has been admitted now, the Reagan Administration was willing to look the other way when known drug dealers were helping fund the Contras. Or one could cover the story from the South Central end – showing what happened to the community with the irony being that the source for some of it was being condoned by government officials. Any of those approaches could have made for a solid movie here. Frankly, I’d argue for telling Webb’s story in a more personal manner, as that’s the tragedy most in the foreground here. But this movie doesn’t do that. It gives us scenes of Webb’s happy family life, and a few perfunctory scenes of the family becoming unhappy with him over time. The movie states – no, it practically yells and screams – that Webb was a truly decent man who got run over by the system and cowardly associates. But it never establishes the depth of who this man was, or why he was so driven to something that would be his undoing. In the end, we never really feel like we’ve met the real Gary Webb. What we get instead is something akin to the quick cursory look the movie’s Webb takes at South Central – and what could have been a great film instead becomes an ordinary one.
Kill The Messenger will be released on February 10th on Blu-ray and DVD. The Blu-ray includes the movie in high definition, along with a commentary, about 9 minutes of deleted footage and three tiny featurettes. The DVD includes the movie and the same extras in standard definition. The Blu-ray includes the DVD edition in the packaging, along with instructions for downloading a digital copy.
Kill The Messenger is presented in a 2.40:1 1080p AVC encode (@ an average 30 mbps) that presents the various Georgia locations in fine detail. Flesh tones are accurate, black levels are solid, and the transfer accurately presents director of photography Sean Bobbitt’s intent to have the various locations from San Jose to South Central to Nicaragua each have a distinct look and feel.
Video Rating: 4/5 3D Rating: NA
Kill The Messenger has an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix (@ an average 4.0 mbps) that places the dialogue in the front channels, but fills the surrounds with music and appropriate songs and atmospherics as the movie unfolds.
Audio Rating: 4/5
Kill The Messenger comes with a director commentary, some deleted scenes and three quick featurettes that don’t reveal all that much.
Special Features Rating: 2/5
Commentary with Director Michael Cuesta – (AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – This scene-specific commentary has Michael Cuesta talking about everything from the real Gary Webb to the work that the production had to do along the way. Much of the discussion is taken up with admiring comments about the actors in their performances.
Deleted Scenes – (5 Total, 9:05, 1080p) (AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – This is a series of 5 deleted scenes and/or extensions, none of which add all that much to the story. There’s one nice additional conversation with Barry Pepper’s character, but even that doesn’t really go anywhere. The scenes can be viewed individually or via a “Play All” option, and there’s an option to watch them with commentary by Michael Cuesta.
All-Star Cast – (2:31, 1080p) (AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – Here we go again with another series of featurettes, none of which are even three minutes long, and all of which include the same clips from the movie. Were all of them to have been edited together, we’d have a 4 ½ minute piece if we were lucky. The first piece just shows glimpses of the various name actors who agreed to come in for a day or two on the movie, with Jeremy Renner and the producers talking about how happy they were to get them.
Crack in America – (2:51, 1080p) (AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – The second of the quick featurettes focuses on “Freeway Ricky” Ross and the actor playing him, Michael Kenneth Williams.
Filming in Georgia – (2:09, 1080p) (AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – The final mini-featurette addresses the reasons why the company shot in Georgia. The filmmakers note that they were able to stage scenes of Sacramento, South Central and Nicaragua all within a reasonable distance. They also admit that they went to Georgia to take advantage of the generous tax incentive.
DVD – The Blu-ray packaging includes the DVD edition, which holds the theatrical version in standard definition with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in English (@448 kbps). The DVD includes all the special features from the Blu-ray, albeit in standard definition.
Digital/Ultraviolet Copy – The packaging has an insert that contains instructions for downloading a digital or ultraviolet copy of the movie.
Subtitles are available in English, Spanish and French for the film itself, as well as for the special features. A standard chapter menu is included for quick reference.
I wish that Kill The Messenger was a better movie than it is. The subject matter certainly deserved it. As it is, the Blu-ray presents the movie in solid high definition picture and sound, along with a commentary and a few quick extras. Overall, the movie doesn’t just fail to tell this story, but manages the odd feat of being completely self-righteous about it at the same time. Fans of Jeremy Renner may want to research the true story carefully before renting this.
Overall Rating: 2/5
Reviewed By: Kevin EK
Support HTF when you buy this title: