Kill the Messenger (5/10)
by Tony Medley
Runtime 107 minutes.
OK for children.
“Based on a true story” always raises questions about what’s “based” and
what’s “true.” This is the tale of Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), an
investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. In 1996
Webb wrote a series of articles entitled Dark Alliance that
alleged a conspiracy that the CIA was working with drug traffickers to
raise money to help the Contras (people opposing the left wing
Sandanista junta that controlled Nicaragua after the overthrow of Somoza
in 1979). Further alleged was that the drugs were sold in minority
areas, like South Central Los Angeles, resulting in lots of black people
becoming addicts. The series got national attention for the paper and
for Webb. Then, according to this film, the CIA launched a counter
attack against Webb and his world fell apart.
Instead of telling the story in an objective way and letting the viewers
make up their own minds, the film takes a definite stand in favor of
The film criticizes the Los Angeles Times (and other media) that
launched a huge investigation into Webb’s articles and concluded that
the content of the story did not back up its inflammatory lead. But part
of investigative journalism is the ability of the investigator to
withstand investigation about his journalism.
As a result, it’s probably better to watch this movie as fiction than
trying to accept it as the whole truth. For instance, near the end of
the movie, a guy named John Cullen (Ray Liotta) mysteriously appears in
Webb’s hotel room in the middle of the night, awakening Webb, and
“confesses,” (for no apparent reason) like Deep Throat, confirming
everything that Webb wrote. As I can find no evidence that a CIA
operative named John Cullen ever existed, it’s not unreasonable to
believe that this is sheer fantasy. He tells Webb that “the people we
were trying to kill, all they wanted were free elections.” Cullen’s
short period onscreen serves to tell the audience that Webb was 100%
right, but there’s simply no evidence this ever happened.
In fact, the junta ruled the country with an iron hand before
“elections” in 1984. It was the out-of-power contras who wanted free
elections and “the people” Liotta “was trying to kill” were the
Sandanistas who were already in power. So this movie has it backwards.
While in power (they were finally voted out of office in 1989, when
Reagan was no longer President) they were socialists who “nationalized”
private property and distributed it to the poor, and supported Castro
and Cuba in trying to incite Communist revolutions throughout Central
America, all things that were contrary to the interests of the United
As a minor complaint, the script is ungrammatical, unless they are
trying to make the point that Webb wasn’t that well versed in the rules
of grammar. We are supposed to believe that Webb is an accomplished
journalist, yet twice within the same paragraph, he says “between my
wife and I.”
If you aren’t concerned about whether or not what you are watching
actually happened the way this film tells it, this is a pretty
entertaining film. It’s absorbing fiction. Who knows the truth? But, as
Robert DeNiro said in The Last Tycoon (1976), that’s the movies!