“I’m going to tell you the whole truth. I’m going to introduce you to people you should talk to and then you will be faced with the most important decision of your life.”
The hero, crusading journalist is a character that’s nothing new to cinema. Movies like All the President’s Men and TV shows like The Wire have proven that there’s excitement to be found in news rooms, as people tap away on keyboards and hunt for the truth. They’re almost always an underdog story as well, focusing on exposés that shine a light in the rich and powerful exploiting their riches and power. The story of Kill the Messenger is something I’ve heard referenced before, but having that story told in proper detail makes Kill the Messenger one of the best, most compelling crusading journalist movies I’ve ever seen.
It’s the mid 90s and hero, crusading journalist Gary Webb is chasing a story about government seizures of alleged drug criminals’ property. Gary is no hippy or extreme lefty, he just thinks it’s a bit shitty that the feds can take property before even convicting the accused. His articles on the matter attract the attention of Coral Baca (Paz Vega) who decides he is the man to expose her own discovery.
It turns out that under the presidency of Ronald Regan, the CIA may have sanctioned, or at least ignored, massive imports of cocaine and crack sales in black neighbourhoods, to help fund an unpopular war in South America. On the side of good, there are Gary’s newspaper colleagues played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt. While the baddies include Barry Pepper as a smarmy prosecutor and America’s always reliable villains, the conservative right wing.
With a stranger than fiction story that could easily fall into conspiracy, nut job territory, the most impressive aspect of Kill the Messenger is its ability to never go off that conspiracy, nut job deep end. There are government conspiracies, clandestine covert ops, cover ups and accusations that would seem insane, if the story wasn’t told in such a calm, believable way. It’s a sensationalist situation that is played with a perfectly straight face, and it’s all the more scarily believable for it.
Watching it, I realised that the work of the real Gary Webb is probably the reason that this story was already familiar to me. The idea of the government introducing crack into the African American community isn’t something new, but I had no idea where it came from. The fact that I know this stuff, but had never heard the name Gary Webb, or know anything about the ramifications of his articles, is exactly why this movie needed to be made.