Director: Michael Cuesta
Writers: Peter Landesman (screenplay), Gary Webb, Nick Schou (books)
Stars: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt
Release date: October 10th, 2014
Distributor: Focus Features
Running time: 112 minutes
Best part: Renner’s enjoyable performance.
Worst part: The exhaustive exposition.
Back in 1996, San Jose Mercury News investigative journalist Gary Webb changed the game for budding reporters, veteran editors, and everyone in between the world over. He published several articles condemning the Central Intelligence Agency’s treatment of specific Los Angeles communities. At this time, conspiracy theorists weren’t paid close attention to. Pushing the truthers into the background, society was much less jaded and skeptical…at least I hope so, anyway. Kill the Messenger strives to meticulously dissect the material.
Kill the Messenger, despite the intriguing narrative and starry cast, primarily illuminates politics and media’s current relationship. Despite the original story’s grit, the movie – based on Webb’s expose Dark Alliance and Nick Schou’s book of the same name – strives to reach mass audiences. Heads up journo students, fully fledged reporters, and editors: this movie takes the profession and tares it to shreds! Throughout, that “I can’t believe this actually happened!” feeling lingers in the consciousness. Thanks to this, everything hits hard! If you can’t stand a history lesson, get out now! The story revolves around Webb(Jeremy Renner)’s clashing professional and personal lives. After completing one of the year’s biggest stories, exploring the confiscation of homes from on-trial drug-running suspects, our subject becomes one of San Jose Mercury News’ biggest hitters. Known for his go-getter attitude and revelatory writing style, his hunger for truth and ratings turns novel ideas into hit stories. Keeping a close relationship with his editors, Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt) and Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), his nice-guy persona nabs him front-page leads and keen-eyed sources. At home, despite he and wife Susan(Rosemarie DeWitt)’s marital quarrels, his family is happy and tight-knit. He receives a call from Coral (Paz Vega), girlfriend of a notorious, on-trial cocaine trafficker. The man, prosecuted against by Russell Dodson (Barry Pepper), is rumoured to have worked with the US Government in the 1980s.
Finding the link between the CIA and Nicaraguan anti-communist rebels, Webb unearths disastrous wrongdoings and their effect on LA’s African-American community. Throughout most of Kill the Messenger, we follow a David vs. Goliath tale of professional line-drawing and personal justification. This docudrama, exploring the decade’s biggest journalistic investigation, depicts an note-worthy rise-and-fall tale. As the investigation continues, it explains each step and tidbit. Given a notepad, interesting sources, and momentous revelations, Webb succinctly tugs each thread. The turning point, hitting during Webb’s interview with incarcerated drug kingpin “Freeway” Ricky Ross (Michael K. Williams), establishes the movie’s immense tone and purpose. Throughout the first half, as the fact vs. perspective feud simmers, his mission attracts lawyers, criminals, and crime lords. Despite the meaty material and searing relevance, it’s afraid of exploring the political, ethical, and social ramifications. Some sequences, depicting heartening interactions between our characters, outline the movie’s immense value. Sadly, others stretch its believability to breaking point. Telling and not showing, the narrative – switching from intriguing journo-drama to vague corporate-thriller – skims over vital details. The second half – depicting Webb’s conflicts with the CIA, editors, and rival media outlets – delivers broad characters and a mind-numbing anti-climax. Whilst interviewing Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia), Webb’s dilemma – choosing whether or not to publish this information – is highlighted obtusely.
“American kids did die and are still dying, just not the ones you care about apparently.” (Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), Kill the Messenger).
Worthy of consideration, Kill the Messenger‘s subject matter remains timeless. Director Michael Cuesta – known for TV dramas including Homeland and Dexter – obviously loves the material. Despite his love of the facts, the independent filmmaker struggled to tell them. Leaping between major twists and turns, this docudrama – unlike All the President’s Men and The Insider – distorts enthralling details with underutilised plot-threads and weighty exposition. Aiming at a specific demographic, it expects us to know everything about these events. Despite its many facts and viewpoints, the movie never crafts an interesting agenda. As Webb is attacked mercilessly by the government and media, the broad storytelling and free-wheeling tangents muddy its points. Also, it never examines LA’s drug scene or Nicaragua’s ever-present issues. Telling a straight-forward version of events, Cuesta’s inexperience comes across. Shaking the camera and dimming the lights, his style carries several TV-drama-thriller traits. Examining modern media’s moral and commercial well-being, this docudrama captures the link between conspiracies, government actions, mass culpability, and journalistic integrity. Thrust into a dangerous world, Webb is a fascinating and likable subject. Renner, hopping between blockbusters (The Avengers, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and drama-thrillers (The Hurt Locker, The Town), delivers a shades-of-grey turn as the notable journo. Injecting scorn and charisma into the role, this underrated A-lister deserves immense credit.
Studying the nihilistic, dog-eat-dog world of professional journalism, Kill the Messenger tells a story worth exploring further. Despite the promising conceits, it jumps awkwardly between fact and fantasy. Giving its supporting players only one-or-two scenes each, Renner’s hearty performance carries this docudrama. Stripping away his Tinseltown glow, the forty-something actor returns to character-actor roots for this grueling role. Truth be told, he deserves much more than Hawkeye and Hansel.