We live in a world of paradoxes. One of them is that as information becomes more and more accessible, we as a society become less and less informed. Finding truth in the noise seems impossible. For those who are interested enough to search, the echo chamber phenomenon -- the tendency to seek out only the opinions you already want to hear -- is prevalent.
I have no idea how accurate the latest movie from Michael Cuesta, Kill the Messenger, is. I have come to understand that any form of the phrase "based on a true story" is a poor guarantor of truth. I once worked on a screenplay based on a true story, and whenever we ran into narrative roadblock, we relied on the old MSU adage. (That stands for "make shit up" for those not in the biz.) When JFK came out, there were many people who thought it was a work of genius, and many others who considered it a travesty because of how it played with its facts. I remember thinking at the time that there was no way the details of Oliver Stone's "based on a true story" story could all be true. And I remembered not caring, because I thought the movie effectively engaged the audience in an important exercise.
I got the same feeling watching the story of Gary Webb, a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, who in 1996, wrote a series of investigative pieces linking the CIA to crack cocaine trafficking in the United States. As a movie, Kill the Messenger gets a lot of things right. For one thing, it is efficient. It runs right around 1:45, compared to The Judge, opening on the same day and requiring about 30 minutes more to tell its far simpler story. It handles the potentially confusing intricacies of the story rather well, letting Webb essentially take on the role of the audience as he digs into the story. Therefore, we learn as he learns, and when something is particularly complex, Cuesta and screenwriter Peter Landesman can have Webb go back to his editors and explain the finer points to them so we can hear it again.
It also boasts some very good acting from Jeremy Renner in the lead role, with support coming from the likes of Oliver Platt, Tim Blake Nelson, Andy Garcia and Michael Sheen. All play men who initially help Webb in his reporting. The reason why some of them eventually cease helping is what is at the heart of Kill the Messenger.
The first half of the movie functions as an investigative whodunit, with Webb trying to nail down exactly who did and who knew what. Once his story breaks, around the midpoint, the movie turns into a horror, as a systematic campaign designed to ruin Webb's reputation, and thus kill the story, kicks into gear. Again, I have very little knowledge about the veracity of this part of the story. The movie is not ambiguous, showing us meetings that are later denied, showing us potential witnesses who are disappeared. But this does not purport to be a documentary (and for the record, the label "documentary" does not guarantee truth either) and I am certain shortcuts were taken, characters amalgamated, and complexities simplified.
But the movie does a very credible job of detailing how the powerful forces in a free and open country can rather easily discredit those who would seek to point out unpleasant truths. They need not beat up or kill, like old-time movie thugs might do. They don't even need to threaten because when a very powerful entity interacts with a much weaker entity, threat is always implied. A few well-placed pieces of information fed into the higher levels of the media machine -- a few expensive legal somersaults from a few expensive attorneys -- that's all it really takes.
As Kill the Messenger tells it, the whistle-blower's doom is virtually inevitable. Indeed, the scariest character in a movie full of cartel bosses, clandestine agents, and sinister lawyers, may well be the minor character played by Richard Schiff, an editor at one of the major papers (I forget if it was the Washington Post or the L.A. Times), who sets out to discredit Webb, and by reflection, Webb's story, simply because he couldn't bear the thought of being scooped by a paper as inconsequential as the San Jose Mercury News. We almost expect the CIA to play dirty in these types of stories, but if the press is in on it too, we really have some problems.
Kill the Messenger is by no means a flawless movie. Webb's home life is not as effectively acted or dramatized as his professional life. It feels a bit like a soap opera at times. The convenience of Paz Vega's character - a siren who arrives early with a box of classified documents and eye-popping cleavage - would cause any reporter as sharp as Webb to question his luck. Webb's teen-age son Ian seems a little too contrived, on hand to give our hero a pat on the back or a kick in the morals whenever he needs it. But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise significant work.
For above everything else, Kill the Messenger demands that we be vigilant. Demands that we question those in power, as often as is necessary to get satisfactory answers. Unfortunately, it also suggests that we are satisfied by answers that cause us the least amount of concern. The biggest danger described in the story is that the masses have already been opiated -- that the public will be quick to believe that things are OK because to believe otherwise would prevent us from watching football or updating our apps.
I admitted that I don't know anything about Gary Webb and therefore have no basis for evaluating the accuracy of this movie. I hope to look into it more. I hope to ask questions. I hope to be able to come to my own conclusion. If I can do that, then this movie has provided a very important service. If not, then it has failed. Paradox.