All the pres­i­dent’s drug deal­ers

In­spired by ‘All the Pres­i­dent’s Men’, Michael Cuesta’s take on Gary Webb’s story lacks the for­mer’s con­vic­tion, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - Don­ald Clarke

KILL THE MES­SEN­GER Di­rected by Michael Cuesta. Star­ring Jeremy Ren­ner, Rose­marie De­Witt, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nel­son, Barry Pep­per, Michael Sheen. 15A cert, gen re­lease, 118 min Lest we be in any doubt as to the in­spi­ra­tion – and tar­get au­di­ence – for Michael Cuesta’s grip­ping, if oc­ca­sion­ally shaky, true-life story, the pic­ture be­gins with archival footage of Richard Nixon dis­cussing the evils of drugs. It is im­pos­si­ble to con­sider Kill the Mes­sen­ger with­out bring­ing All the Pres­i­dent’s Men into the con­ver­sa­tion. The pic­ture even fea­tures an early scene in which our gal­lant re­porter lurks in­quis­i­tively at the back of a pre-trial hear­ing. As in the ear­lier film, the crim­i­nal is re­vealed to have con­nec­tions with shad­owy wings of the US se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus. Once again the ed­i­tors go out on a limb. This time, how­ever, the Wash­ing­ton Post is among the enemies.

The con­tin­u­ing enigma that is Jeremy Ren­ner – tal­ented, but trag­i­cally short of charisma – stars as Gary Webb, jour­nal­ist for the mid-rank­ing San Jose Mer­cury News who, in the 1990s, un­cov­ered the CIA’s ap­par­ent in­volve­ment in im­port­ing co­caine dur­ing the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion. The film is never too far from a thun­der­ing cliche. Do in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists re­ally pin pho­to­graphs to the wall and connect them with bits of string? Wast­ing Rose­marie De­Witt on an ar­che­typal nag­ging wife role feels like a mi­nor out­rage. Yes, this hack does wear a cor­duroy jacket.

Still, the de­tails of Webb’s story are laid out with great lu­cid­ity as the para­noia is lay­ered on to im­pres­sive ef­fect. When a con­victed drug dealer re­veals a con­nec­tion to the se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus, Webb trav­els to Nicaragua and be­gins piec­ing to­gether an ap­par­ent gov­ern­ment-ap­proved scheme to fi­nance the Con­tras. All this is shot in the en­er­getic faux-doc­u­men­tary style that Cuesta brought to Home­land.

The film takes a prop­erly equiv­o­cal line on so­cio-po­lit­i­cal ex­trap­o­la­tions that were drawn from Webb’s sto­ries. This ver­sion of the jour­nal­ist would ad­mit that the sup­posed plot fu­elled the crack out­break in ur­ban ar­eas such as South Cen­tral Los An­ge­les, but, though he is re­peat­edly linked to wild ac­cu­sa­tions, he never claims the in­ner-city dev­as­ta­tion was the CIA’s in­tent. Webb sus­pects the se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus of view­ing the drug-re­lated mor­tal­i­ties as col­lat­eral dam­age in a geo-po­lit­i­cal con­flict.

Nonethe­less, the sus­pi­cion that Webb was ped­dling con­spir­acy the­o­ries – fu­elled by the sto­ries’ dis­sem­i­na­tion via the then-un­fa­mil­iar in­ter­net – of­fered enemies handy op­por­tu­ni­ties when the scan­dal gained trac­tion. In­ter­est­ingly, big beasts from the news me­dia, ag­grieved by this scoop from a lo­cal pa­per, seem to have been just as as­sid­u­ous in their ef­forts to shut him down as the se­cu­rity com­mu­nity. In an irony that hardly needs stress­ing, the Wash­ing­ton Post, the or­gan that helped un­cover Water­gate, worked hard­est to dis­credit Webb.

The film’s sec­ond half should stoke out­rage and fuel re­sent­ment. Webb gets shuf­fled away from in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing and ends up writ­ing about sick po­lice horses in Cu­per­tino. Yet the film lacks con­vic­tion. The more his ac­cusers men­tion the shoddy na­ture of his sources, the more doubts begin cir­cu­lat­ing in the viewer’s hith­erto re­cep­tive mind. When brows are fur­rowed at his story of a mys­te­ri­ous CIA in­sider break­ing into his ho­tel room to de­liver anony­mous con­fir­ma­tion, it proves hard to stop one’s eye­balls from swiv­el­ling up­wards.

We needed some­thing that was ei­ther much less one-sided – en­cour­ag­ing doubts and rel­ish­ing shad­ows – or was con­sid­er­ably more com­mit­ted in its cre­ative bias. Although skil­fully made and of­ten ex­cit­ing, Kill the Mes­sen­ger ul­ti­mately fails to flog us its key con­tention. All the Pres­i­dent’s Men could ges­ture to­wards Nixon’s res­ig­na­tion to back up its claims, but, more sig­nif­i­cantly, it con­vinced us we had seen Wood­ward and Bern­stein cross­ing all Ts and dot­ting all Is (though ob­vi­ously we hadn’t).

Di­vert­ing, nonethe­less.

Fol­low the money Jeremy Ren­ner on the trail of the Con­tras

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