KILL THE MESSENGER

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Based on a true story, KILL THE MESSENGER is a dramatic political thriller about a reporter who discovered that America’s intelligence agency, the CIA, looked the other way or even helped some anti-communist factions in Nicaragua in the 1980s smuggle crack cocaine and marijuana into the USA. Allegedly, the factions used the money to fund their operations against the Pro-Soviet communist regime in Nicaragua and, probably in some cases, line their own pockets. There are a couple major problems with the movie and another, more minor one. These problems hurt the factual credibility and quality of the movie, which features excellent acting and a well-structured plot. However, MOVIEGUIDE®’s own investigation into the issues the movie portrays support the general idea that CIA officials at least looked the other way when it comes to drug dealing in Nicaragua. In fact, there are indications that CIA officials often look the other way, and may even support, drug dealing operations throughout what is known as “the third world.” The argument is that these connections are hard to avoid because illegal drugs are a major “business” operation in many third world areas. So, if you want to engage in espionage in these areas, which includes working with some pretty shady characters, sometimes you have to deal with drug dealers.
The movie’s hero is Gary Webb, a seasoned reporter with the San Jose Mercury News. In 1996, his career takes a new turn when an upscale international cocaine trafficker’s seductive girlfriend slips Gary a Grand Jury transcript connecting the trafficker’s supplier from Central America with the CIA. The Justice Department prosecutor seems to be hiding the connection from the trafficker’s defense attorney and the defense attorney for Los Angeles crack cocaine kingpin “Freeway” Ricky Ross.
Working with Ricky’ attorney, Gary gets the attorney to question the drug supplier, Danilo Blandon, about his connection to the CIA and the Contras, the anti-communist factions that opposed the Pro-Soviet government of Daniel Ortega in the 1980s. No matter how hard the Justice Dept. prosecutor tries, the connection comes up in open court.
Soon, Gary is running down to Nicaragua to get confirmation that the CIA knew about the drug trafficking among some of the major anti-communists. The problem is, he can never get a current or former CIA official to confirm his findings. However, Gary and his newspaper publish a three-part story on their findings anyway. The story embarrasses the big newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. So, the editors at the Times and the Post start poking holes in Gary’s story. They get anonymous CIA officials to deny Gary’s story. This in turn puts pressure on some of Gary’s sources in Nicaragua, who start to recant what they allegedly told him. Things turn dangerous when one of his major sources, an international banker based in Panama, is kidnapped off the streets and when mysterious government officials start to follow Gary and make a veiled threat against his family.
Suddenly, when major TV news networks also start taking shots at Gary’s story, Gary finds his own editors at the San Jose Mercury News backing away from Gary’s story and away from Gary himself. What will Gary do now?
KILL THE MESSENGER plays like a political thriller, much like the acclaimed 1974 movie ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN about the two Washington Post reporters who exposed some alleged scandals involving President Richard Nixon that forced Nixon to resign. Like that movie, the MESSENGER script is well structured and the acting by its veteran cast is excellent, especially that by Jeremy Renner of THE BOURNE LEGACY and MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS as Gary. KILL THE MESSENGER reveals how easy it is for people in the mass media to smear someone they don’t like, have a grudge against, or who doesn’t share their ideology. This reviewer has met “journalists” in the “news” media who have acted like Gary Webb’s faithless editors or the nasty people from the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post in this movie.
Several problems prevent KILL THE MESSENGER from achieving greatness. They also diminish its quality and credibility. Thus, while the major accusation that the CIA looked the other way about the illegal drug connection seems true, the movie has some confusing elements otherwise.
For instance, at first, when the hero’s story is questioned, the movie denies (through the hero’s dialogue and other dialogue) that the story said the CIA was actually actively involved in bringing crack cocaine to America’s inner cities by way of Nicaragua. Then, the movie starts saying that the CIA was indeed directly involved. Well, which is it? This apparent contradiction seems too confusing and adds some doubt to the movie’s story.
Second, although the movie chastises the Times and the Post for using anonymous CIA sources to refute the hero’s story, it inserts a silly scene where Gary is visited at night by a mysterious, anonymous CIA agent. The agent, played by Ray Liotta, tells the hero the CIA was indeed directly involved and didn’t only just look the other way. This scene ends just as mysteriously and ominously as it begins, and the CIA agent’s real identity is never revealed. If anonymous CIA sources are bad for the Washington Post, then why aren’t they bad for the filmmakers of KILL THE MESSENGER? This apparent contradiction also leads to confusion as well as leaves some unanswered questions.
Thirdly, the movie makes it seem as if the entire anti-communist movement in Nicaragua in the 1980s was filled with illegal drug dealers. However, in looking at some of the actual documents showing that there were indeed some connections, these connections don’t seem to have affected the movement as a whole. In fact, according to one important U.S. government document, only two of 19 Latinos mentioned in the document are suspected of being involved in smuggling drugs. Another person is suspected of talking with all sides in the Nicaraguan conflict, and a fourth person is suspected of taking special “commissions” or kickbacks/bribes for legal sales of some kind (see http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/north03.pdf). The movie’s allegation here seems to have major factual errors.
Finally, on a minor note, the movie briefly alleges Lt. Col. Oliver North, the main figure at the center of the Iran-Contra controversy in the 1980s during the Reagan administration, knew about the drug smuggling connections to the Nicaraguan anti-communists. Although North himself admits this is true, the movie doesn’t mention the fact that North asserts he alerted American anti-drug officials about the possible connections. That said, it appears that North has never said what anti-drug officials he told. Also, several major anti-drug officials active during the 1980s said North never told them, nor do they know, who he alerted, if anyone. Lt. Col. North could help his case by revealing the name or names of the anti-drug official(s) he alerted.
Sadly, after reporter Gary Webb left the employ of the San Jose Mercury News, he never got another job on a daily newspaper and eventually divorced his wife. Tragically, he committed suicide in 2004.
Because of the factual problems, confusion and unanswered questions in KILL THE MESSENGER, MOVIEGUIDE® finds the movie unacceptable for now, but not abhorrent. Media-wise, informed moviegoers should be careful about this MESSENGER, though it doesn’t yet deserve “killing.”
KILL THE MESSENGER also contains some strong foul language and scary, tense scenes.

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