15 posts categorized "Political Thriller"

October 06, 2014


An Incomplete Investigation
Gary Webb’s Story Gets Short Shrift

Kill the MessengerInvestigative journalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It never was. “Big scandal” stories like the one broken by real-life San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, about the CIA’s funding of the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. on a massive scale, fell mostly on deaf ears when Webb’s powerful series of “Dark Alliance” of exposé articles appeared in 1996. Only outraged local communities in Los Angeles took direct action. Black community groups demanded answers for the CIA-enabled drug conspiracy that decimated their neighborhoods. Of course, by then most or all guilty members of the Reagan administration — including old Ronnie himself — were happily retired and living off the fat of the land, beyond the law. Authoritarian lip service was paid, nothing more.

Webb’s explosive reporting on the government’s hypocritical actions related to “smuggling tons of cocaine into the United States” came under attack from all sides. Petty jealousy and calculated indolence on the part of big newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post hung Webb and his findings out to dry. Rather than assigning their own journalists to follow up on Webb’s incendiary reporting, American media attacked the man who put his own ass on the line. No big-paper editor wanted to concede that a reporter from a relatively insignificant paper like the San Jose Mercury could scoop them on a story containing earth-shattering revelations.

As is shown in the movie, the Washington Post adopted a government-puppet stance dedicated to discrediting Webb’s reporting rather than seeking to verify his findings. That the film doesn’t bother with the finer points of Webb’s journalism is a problem.

Director Michael Cuesta sets the table with archive television footage of U.S. Presidents, from Nixon through Reagan, condemning drugs. Even former First Lady Nancy Reagan gets screentime for her notoriously insipid “Just Say No” drug campaign. We are hooked.

Kill the Messenger2The ever-redoubtable Jeremy Renner plays the newspaper reporter and family man Gary Webb with detailed attention to the athletic physicality and fearless attitude that street journalists typically possess. Renner’s portrayal is the best thing the movie has going for it, aside from its civilian espionage aspect. 
The flirtatious girlfriend of an indicted drug lord supplies Webb with a confidential file that points to the inveterate seizure of suspected drug traffickers’ property by the DEA. The partially redacted grand jury transcript relates to Nicaraguan drug lord Danilo Blandon and his links to the Contras and to the CIA. Webb takes the bait and travels to Nicaragua for some on-the-ground research.

Although competently directed, “Kill the Messenger” hopscotches through aspects of Webb’s professional and private life without sufficiently fleshing out either. It’s impossible to know by screening the film whether the screenwriting or editing is to blame, but many crucial elements go missing.

Questions lurk about the fact-checking support of Webb’s two-faced Mercury News editor Anna Simons (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead). More to the point are the alleged holes in Webb’s reporting that the CIA and media outlets seize upon to discredit him and his articles.

“Kill the Messenger” is a frustrating movie. It fails both as a brief biopic and as a political thriller. It works somewhat as a sketch character study, but that’s not enough to satisfy a movie audience.

At a time in history when investigative journalism has been marginalized so much that hardly anyone notices or cares, tragic stories like Gary Webb’s only support the sad reality that America’s police state spooks have won, and will continue to win with a fog of propaganda and some well-placed bullets. The movie does however remind us how amazing it is that heroic whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are still fighting the good fight. Some messengers live longer than others.

Rated R. 112 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)


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February 11, 2013


Pablo Larrain’s Pinochet Trilogy Loses Substance

Gael Garcia Bernal’s television adman-turned-political-commercial-creator Rene Saavedra is such an ethically ambiguous and passive protagonist that “No” falls flat as a piece of wannabe agitprop cinema. Director Pablo Larrain continues his ongoing study of Pinochet-ruled '70s-era Chile — behind “Tony Manero” (2008) and “Post Mortem” (2010) with an airy statement about the power of the television commercial formula. This lackluster film is based on a stage play, “Referendum” by Antonio Skarmeta.

Rene is the fence-sitting son of a famous Chilean dissident exiled after the C.I.A. assassinates democratically elected President Salvador Allende in a coup, leading to the rise of Augusto Pinochet, a brutal despot. The terrible treatment his father endured has cowed Rene into utter submission under a corrupt system he can barely begin to fathom.

Dictatorial governance begets dictatorial interpersonal relations. After leaving his job making television soft drink commercials, Rene takes on the personality of mini-tyrant over his creative team, which is assigned to design and produce a 15-minute political segment capable of convincing the public to vote “no” against Pinochet in an upcoming referendum.

Pinochet's goons deploy various intimidation tactics against Rene and his staff. Even Rene’s separated wife and son come under attack from the dictator's relentless crew of thugs. Still, nothing polarizes the cowardly Rene into any action beyond the immediate demands of his job. He’s a corporate shill married more to keeping his weekly paycheck than to standing up and fighting when the situation demands it.

While the film’s production standards are high, the narrative is as unsatisfying as they come. It’s impossible to empathize with a protagonist who lacks balls. Rene Saavedra is one of the most impotent examples of a freedom fighter you'll find anywhere in cinema. With friends like this, leftists don’t need more enemies.

Rated R. 110 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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September 05, 2011


Soderbergh Gets Sick

Pandemic Isn’t Catching

By Cole Smithey

Contagion"Contagion's" PG-13 rating predicts the film's less than horrific nature (following an overpromising opening sequence). Director Steven Soderbergh inflects his beautifully photographed compositions with a slick techno pop score yet can't compensate for a script splintered into too many subplots.

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns ("The Informant!") ignores fundamental rules about providing the audience with a clear protagonist. Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, and Kate Winslet each play intriguing characters who could conceivably lead the story; sadly, all get lost in the shuffle. Kate Winslet's Dr. Erin Mears is excellent. However, her part is cut woefully short. Most damning is the film’s refusal to meditate upon the gruesome reality of a widespread global pandemic that leaves millions of rotting corpses in its wake.


Hopscotching between the cities of Chicago, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, the fragmented movie follows the outbreak of a virus called MEV-1 like a felon attempting to avoid the scene of a crime. Jude Law's activist blogger Alan Krumwiede posts a homeopathic cure for the quick-spreading disease on his increasingly busy website. Family man Mitch Emhoff finds that he is immune to the virus after losing two family members to its insidious clutches. Damon's character is perhaps the film's most criminally squandered role, next to a blink-and-you'll-miss-it performance from the enormously talented Elliot Gould. Gould graciously fills a minor role as a research scientist whose subplot gets abandoned more so than every other.


“Contagion” does have its moments, however few and far between they are. An especially dramatic death and subsequent scalp-slicing autopsy bring the movie to a proper pitch of cringe-worthy fear. Another episode involving an infected man coughing and touching handrails on a public bus elicits the level of revulsion mass transit riders experience on a daily basis.


If there’s a stand-out moment in the movie it comes during a televised interview with Laurence Fishburne’s head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Ellis Cheever, and Jude Law’s dentally-challenged blogger. Law’s Krumwiede performs the kind of catty public take-down on Dr. Cheever that Bill O’Reilly gets wet dreams about carrying out against his guests. Irony comes later when Krumwiede’s own missteps catch up with him. Still, the screenwriter draws Law’s blogger character with such cartoonish brushstrokes that he borders on the comical. When Elliot Gould describes blogging as “graffiti with punctuation,” you have to chuckle at the screenwriter’s ham-fisted attempt at editorializing. There’s a certain kitchen-sink thing going on. Witness the stupefying miscasting of comedian Demetri Martin in a supporting role as a lab assistant trusted with handling the MEV-1 virus. Talk about sapping credibility from your movie. Soderbergh did a doozy with this one.


“Contagion” is an odd film for its vast supply of untapped potential. It’s surprising that a seasoned filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh would choose to work with such a poorly realized script. The ensemble performances are strong, and the film’s atmosphere is appropriately glum, but there’s nothing here to make you feel like you’ve had a meaningful cinematic experience. What a waste.

Rated PG-13. 105 mins.

2 Stars


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