Michael Cuesta’s Kill the Messenger strikes me as a necessary film at a time when the US political cinema is at a low ebb – excluding the many fine straight-to-DVD documentaries by Robert Greenberg and others, about the criminal wars on the Middle East by the Bush crowd and their successors, the rise of industrial foods, the operations of Wall St., the corporate media, the ongoing concerns about 9/11, and other topics. These films, I fear, reach a limited audience. We will see how Kill the Messenger fares this current season; for many, it is an old and dead story, for those who ever knew of it in the first place. But it tells us much about American power in the last half-century up to the present. It is a tense, informed film, not about a “dark chapter” of recent US history, but ongoing assumptions of US power.
The film concerns Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a journalist for the tiny San Jose Mercury News. In the mid-1990s, Webb uncovered evidence that the huge volume of crack cocaine flowing, in the 1980s, through the ghettos and barrios of American cities, especially in Los Angeles, was supplied in large part by the CIA-backed Contras, rightist counterrevolutionaries attempting to overthrow the Nicaraguan Sandinista socialist government (which for many on the left became a disappointment, but at least an opposition to the rabid, pro-corporate Reagan regime in Washington). Drug money flowed back to the Contras, as the Reagan functionaries created their own covert foreign policy. At the time, Nancy Reagan took part in the official “War on Drugs” by appearing in TV ads asking young people to “just say no!” (A friend of mine once suggested that she “just say no” to her compulsive purchasing of high-fashion wardrobes, million-dollar crockery, and other needless White House accoutrements.)
These were also the years of the Iran-Contra Scandal, when the Reagan regime defied Congress’s resistance to military action in Central America by selling arms to the publically-vilified Islamic revolutionary government of Iran (which overthrew the US-backed Shah), then sending profits to aid the Nicaraguan Contras. Congressional investigations uncovered an “off-the-shelf” foreign policy that defied the Constitution and committed crimes far exceeding those of Watergate, but as politicians and media flunkeys noted at the time, “We don’t need another Watergate,” as the whole thing petered out. Who “we” referred to was unclear (the pronoun is used, of course, to make the population identify with the power structure), but not the implication: another scandal on the order of Watergate, forcing out Reagan and collapsing his government, could cause a major legitimation crisis worse than that which produced the profound cynicism of the Vietnam/Watergate years. Another such crisis could produce a critical rather than merely cynical mindset in the population, propelling, perhaps, the downfall of the patriarchal capitalist order itself.
Webb’s discovery of a link between the CIA, the Contras, and the ongoing misery of the American urban underclass had titanic implications. By the late 1980s, “crack,” a powerful but cheap version of cocaine, was marketed to immiserated minorities in America’s hopeless, deindustrialized cities, as skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled jobs associated with manufacturing (and central to organized labor) were sent to Mexico or elsewhere in the world where laborers work for pennies, all according to “free trade” ideology embraced by both US political parties (the Clintons were especially voluble proponents of NAFTA and other illegal free trade measures).
The crack epidemic produced an official war on the African-American and Hispanic poor. Laws concerning the possession of even a tiny amount of crack, the inexpensive drug of the poor, became very punitive, while penalties for possession of powder cocaine, the expensive leisure drug of the upper- and middle-classes, were relatively light. The US quickly produced what became known to some sociologists as a Prison Industrial Complex, as the urban poor were simply incarcerated in an ever-expanding prison network where inmate labor was used to supply not license plates, but furniture and other consumer goods sold by the private sector.
Gary Webb’s struggle in Kill the Messenger parallels those of the heroes of Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) and Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999); he is one man against the system, tirelessly building his story, along with passion within himself for his cause. He is supported, then celebrated, then punished by his colleagues who gradually alienate themselves from him. Even his wife (Rosemary DeWitt) crumbles under the pressure against Webb brought by the CIA and the corporate media, who misrepresent Webb’s story and collectively threaten his livelihood. The film, following as it does a one-man’s-struggles formula, might be questioned for its ingenuity; but such a formula might be appropriate in making us recognize that very often it is only one person, or a few, who defy official power. Webb has his supporters; the film uses news footage of the day showing Representative Maxine Waters speaking out against the deliberate sale of drugs to the population by officialdom. She and other black leaders were portrayed as gullible crackpots. At the time, Webb never stated outright that there was evidence that the CIA consciously took part in the Contra drug racket, but given their close supervision of the counterrevolution in Nicaragua, it is almost impossible to imagine that The Company was in the dark. The logic here is chilling: destroy an unwanted government in Central America while you (again) wage a deadly war on the minority populations.
There are major precedents for Webb’s discoveries. The notorious French Connection, allowing the Mafia to import heroin to the US, was in part a reward for their policing the New York docks during World War II in a plan called Operation Underworld, which had as much to do with union-smashing as stopping Nazi saboteurs. During the Vietnam years, drugs flowed freely from Southeast Asia into the US courtesy of organized crime, the military and CIA. The ongoing war on drugs in Central and South America is about supporting US client regimes with arms rather than interdicting the flow of narcotics. None of the “wars” on drugs sponsored by the US have considered drugs as a public health crisis rather than a problem for the military, even as many people are today being hooked – and physically damaged – as much by prescription-based sedatives and tranquilizers as illegal drugs.
I won’t spoil things for the viewer by revealing the film’s ending – suffice it to say that Webb’s fate isn’t pleasant. I will say that the film’s endnotes contain the revelation that in the late 1990s the government released numerous documents substantiating Webb’s stories, but the media and public were then preoccupied with the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky sex scandals.
Gary Webb’s book Dark Alliance, a source for the film, should be required reading for those interested in the real politics of drug flow in the US. It is complemented by the late Alexander Cockburn’s Whiteout, and above all Alfred McCoy’s classic The Politics of Heroin.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes often for Film International and Cineaste.