Kill the Messenger: Michael Cuesta’s Fact-Based Political Thriller

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Kill the Messenger is a political thriller, but what Gary Webb uncovered and shared with the world still haunts us today,” says producer Scott Stuber.

It has been a decade since he began developing the story as one of the first passion projects Stuber bought to produce after running production at Universal Pictures for eight years.

“Gary Webb’s story is so powerful,” adds producer Naomi Despres. “Here was a man driven to tell the truth even when forces much greater than himself did not want the truth to be told.”

I have no idea why this intriguing and realistic film about journalism had failed to attract any viewers.  It’s truly one of the better ones I have seen, and Jeremy Reiner gives a truly great performance.

Director Michael Cuesta comments, “Gary was like a Doberman. His scrappy, insistent way of getting at the facts, and his ardent belief in the public’s right to know the truth, was paramount to him. He was a reporter of the people, of the proletariat. He had a pure sense of what truth and justice means. He was a real guy that liked punk bands and hockey. He was not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the bigwigs. We need guys like this, especially in today’s labyrinth of media noise and reckless political media punditry.”

Incarnated on-screen by Jeremy Renner – also a producer of the movie – Webb was a respected, hard-charging investigative journalist who longed to land a career-making story. Kill the Messenger tracks Webb as he uncovers the “Dark Alliance” between drug dealers, a rebel army, and their Central Intelligence Agency handlers – and also tracks Webb himself, a flawed and vulnerable man and a tireless reporter who fiercely believed that his job was to shine a spotlight on even the darkest corners of the world so that the public good was served, no matter how it impacted him.

The twice Academy Award-nominated Renner joined Stuber and Despres to work on the development and casting processes. Despres notes, “Jeremy put the movie first, both as actor and producer. Having him as an incredibly hard-working collaborator in the producing efforts was great.”

Renner remarks, “When my producing partner, Don Handfield, alerted me to this story, I knew I wanted to portray Gary. I started calling in, or just asking for, favors to help get this movie made. Gary’s story needed to be told.

“Gary’s journey was emotional, exciting, and relevant to us today given how impacted we all are by surveillance and social media. Accountability in government and from our leaders only comes when an ethical, free press is engaged and energized. Gary did the right thing at great personal and professional cost, and his plight moved me.”

In the late 1980s, Gary Webb had returned with his family to his home state of California, joining the staff of the San Jose Mercury News. He was already a respected journalist. Furthering his reputation at the latter paper, in 1990 he was one of six Mercury News reporters to win a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the Loma Prieta earthquake. A few years later, in the summer of 1995, he received the phone message that would alter his life forever.

The message was from a woman named Coral Baca; Webb had done a Mercury News story on the U.S. government’s seizures of property from suspected drug dealers, and Baca had read the piece with considerable interest – since her boyfriend, Rafael Cornejo, had been in prison for three years on cocaine-related charges. Webb, who chased down every lead and contact, returned the call and met with his unlikely source.

Baca told Webb that Cornejo had never been tried but that the government had seized all of his physical property anyway. Webb didn’t know what to make of her account – until she told him that the government’s chief witness against her boyfriend was a drug lord named Danilo Blandon, responsible for smuggling tons of cocaine into the U.S., and that she had documents to prove his affiliation with the CIA.

A year of intense investigation, both in the U.S. and abroad, followed for Webb. He then broke the story which would eventually break him.

His August 1996 series of three articles for the Mercury News was titled “Dark Alliance.” The articles ran simultaneously in print and online, with unprecedented website supplements of documents and videos. Webb reported that drug traffickers working with the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras were importing massive amounts of cocaine into Los Angeles, where dealers flooded the streets in the crack epidemic – most damagingly in South Central L.A. The articles’ bigger revelation was that profit from the drug sales was used to fund the Reagan White House-supported Contra militia fighting a civil war in Nicaragua – in clear violation of the Boland Amendment prohibiting support of the war.

“America is continuing to pay the price for this today,” states Kill the Messenger screenwriter Peter Landesman. “Not just the scars that linger, but the billions and billions of dollars’ worth for taxpayers.”

Cuesta comments, “Gary was accused of asserting that the CIA’s objective was to drug the African-American community into submission – but he never made such a claim. His accusers stooped lower still by tagging the community’s reactions to Gary’s revelations as being steeped in paranoia; this besmirching of an entire community just to discredit one man was grotesque.”

Stuber notes, “You’re still floored to realize the extent of the harm: thousands of Americans getting addicted to illegal drugs, jails overflowing with young people, and the rationale that funneling the proceeds from a criminal enterprise was acceptable collateral damage because it aided rebels fighting a Cold War battle 2,000 miles from the U.S. border – despite Congress having expressly blocked that approach. Who could have imagined this back road being taken?”

“You’re following Gary down this road as he uncovers a wealth of information,” adds actor Tim Blake Nelson, who portrays defense attorney Alan Fenster. “That makes you, as an audience member, want to know more yourself.”

Cuesta, an Emmy Award winner for Homeland, kept that instinct in mind for Renner’s portrayal. “Gary Webb would dig and dig to find the truth,” says Cuesta. “Having made a movie with Jeremy before [12 and Holding], I knew in turn that he would work to find the truth of who Gary was.

“Jeremy is very much an instinctual actor. When he digs into a scene, he can go subtle or explosive. He’s dynamic and real; what more can a director ask for? He also has an inner life that the camera can pick up in the most quiet moment: storms are brewing and wheels are turning, and frustration and guilt are thinly veiled – all conveyed with no words.”

Despres adds, “I think that Jeremy connected innately to Gary, not only as a bit of an outsider but also as someone whose authenticity is central to who they are as a man.

“It’s important to consider that Gary didn’t know people in positions of power like reporters at the major newspapers did. He didn’t have those relationships in Washington, and yet here he was chasing the story down when others weren’t, and doing his best work on matters of national security and international politics – an area that was outside his regular beat.”

Cuesta worked closely with director of photography Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) to orient the audience perception to Gary’s gaining – or seeking to gain – forbidden access. The cinematographer would often circle an unfolding scene with a handheld camera, as Cuesta encouraged him to emulate the viewer’s perspective – but as if in the same room as the characters. The unobtrusive camera in concert with nimble blocking by Cuesta would enable the actors to get used to Bobbitt’s presence and the scenes being acted out would feel that much more real.

Michael Kenneth Williams, cast as Stateside drug kingpin Ricky Ross, had worked with both Cuesta and Bobbitt prior and points out that “Michael cares about the scene as well as the shot. He’s fun to work with because he loves actors and he’ll film things guerrilla-style, which Sean can do so well.”

Producer Scott Stuber notes that Kill the Messenger, while full of seemingly “on-the-fly” shots, benefits from how “Michael’s frame compositions create a feeling of being spied on – as if you’re watching scenes from through a lens, or from a vantage point, that you aren’t supposed to be in proximity to.

“When Gary gains access to information he’s not supposed to have, you sense that you aren’t either. That unease, and then the urge to tell the truth, drives a lot of the movie.”

Cuesta adds, “I also tried to show Gary carrying the burden of wanting to get at the truth. What does that do to a man? Especially one who gets into a war he can’t win?”

As the film progresses, Webb’s increasing isolation is subtly conveyed. “I’d say that Michael is drawn to stories of outsiders,” says Oliver Platt, cast as Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos. “He takes you up close to complicated people, people who get themselves into rough spots. There is a lot of compassion in his storytelling, and in the stories he chooses to tell.”

Cuesta remarks, “I’ve always been drawn to difficult subject matter or, as some put it, dark stories. I just find that the stories that are harder to take are the ones that are the most healing and illuminating; I’m always looking for that light in the dark. As a filmmaker, if you’re going to spend two years of your life on telling one story, it better be worth the time and heartache that goes into making a movie.”

 

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