Kill the Messenger and CitizenFour: Two Powerful Historical-Political Films

Both of these films relate to historically important journalistic actions that pose radical challenges to the corruption of the existing political order. Both films came out this year, are currently in movie theaters and have been positively reviewed and received. The difference is that the events depicted in Kill the Messenger occurred in the 1990s and the film is a historical documentary of a story that is finished – whereas CitizenFour depicts actions that have occurred within this past year and a plot line that is currently continuing to unfold in real time, with as yet unknown, open-ended outcomes. Thus, I like to think that the production and release in theaters of these two films now represents a kind of concentration and sharpening of focus on political-historical realities – that portends positive developments. I recommend everyone sees them both.

killthemessengerKill the Messenger is an American drama thriller directed by Michael Cuesta and written by Peter Landesman. It is based on the book of the same name by Nicholas Schou and the book Dark Alliance by Gary Webb, who is the courageous and ultimately doomed hero of the film. (Nicholas Schou also wrote Orange Sunshine, a history of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.) Webb was the reporter for the San Jose-Mercury News who wrote a series of articles in 1996 about CIA involvement in cocaine trafficking in the US. Webb uncovered that Nicaraguans linked to the CIA-backed Contras were smuggling cocaine into the US to raise money for the Contras. Their smuggled cocaine fueled the crack epidemic sweeping through many US cities in the late 1990s.

According to Webb’s research and articles, the CIA and Reagan administration knew of the shipments of drugs into the US and shielded drug dealers from prosecution in order to help fund the contras. Webb convinced his editors to run his story, which was explosive. Initially hailed as a hero, Webb soon met with overwhelming skepticism. The New York Times and The Washington Post start picking at aspects of the story, and then attacking Webb himself. The movie depicts a media culture so embedded in the establishment that it doesn’t even have to be coerced into serving the interests of the powerful. Webb was reduced to write dog stories and the newspaper retracted major aspects of the story. Though his family remained supportive, two years later he committed suicide. Ten years later the CIA publically admitted Gary Webb’s revelations had essential been correct – but by then few people remembered what it was all about.

citizenfour_posterCitizenFour is a documentary in real time about Edward Snowden and his explosive revelations of the mass surveillance by the NSA and other intelligence agencies on millions of US and other citizens. The film is directed by Laura Poitras, one of the two journalists first selected by Snowden to publish his findings and features Snowden himself, filmed at first in Hong Kong and then after his flight into exile in Moscow.

It also features Glenn Greenwald, the other journalist, working for The Guardian, who lives in Brazil and who continues to publish stories based on the vast trove of documents Snowden extracted from the NSA. Greenwald wrote his own account of events in a book, No Place to Hide. The film also features short appearances from other whistle-blowers, including Julian Assange, and other journalists, such as The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill, who are publishing parts of the stories from the Snowden files.

Knowing that it was filmed in real time as the real events unfolded with uncertain outcomes makes watching the film an incredibly tense yet absorbing experience.  Nevertheless, listening to and watching Snowden calmly and sincerely expound to his journalistic allies on his reasons for doing what he did at enormous personal risk to his person – is an inspiring experience, giving one hope for the survival of the basic human instincts for respecting the liberties of one another.

 

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