“Kill the Messenger” Reveals the Dark Side of Investigative Journalism
Kill the Messenger
Release Date: October 10, 2014
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Rosemarie DeWitt, Michael Sheen, Ray Liotta, Michael K. Willians, Oliver Platt
Director: Michael Cuesta
Studio: Bluegrass Films, The Combine
Distributor: Focus Features
Genre(s): Political Thriller / Drama
Based On Dark Alliance
After a title card bleakly declares that we signed up for a film based on an all-too true story from 1996, Kill the Messenger starts by force-feeding the audience with a rapid-fire stream of muckraking newsreels and televised political speeches linking the United States’ “War on Drugs” with the Contra War for democracy in Nicaragua. Drugs, a foreign war, the media circus and the United States government mix together like a bitter, but familiar, iceless drink. We expect some mad corruption and conspiracies to go down, and a crusading hero handsomely dodging all the bullets to expose that corruption with his vox populi pen. Indie director Michael Cuesta (“L.I.E.,” “Rookie,” “Homeland”) wanted Kill the Messenger to be all of those things — plus a modern Icarus cum martyr narrative, resulting in a well-intentioned but harried film.
Jeremy Renner resurrects the real-life investigative reporter Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News who unveiled, in a 20,000-word series of features called “Dark Alliance,” the CIA’s cooperation with L.A. and Nicaraguan drug lords in a decade-long operation of funding the Contras movement. Peter Landesman’s script was adapted from Webb’s own reports and Nick Shou’s titular book.
The first act gives a super metal look into the reporter’s work. After a handsey gun moll named Coral Bacas (Paz Vega) drops off a box containing several incriminating tips for his use (and to spring her drug dealer boyfriend,) the movie follows Webb as he tracks down implicated drug dealers, throws the middle finger to ruffled CIA agents, and ventures into South Central L.A.’s ravaged ghettos with his journalistic (shaky POV hand-held camera aesthetic) gaze.
Webb is everything journalism needs and ought to be. He is even congratulated by Andy Garcia’s Norwin Meneses, one delightfully poncey crook he meets in a Central American prison, for being the first journalist to pursue the big story; the same crook also obligatorily warns Webb that now he is “faced with the most important decision of [his] life: whether to share it or not.” The choice is simple for the man who’s been craving to do some “real reporting.” Webb heads home to California, locks himself in his writer’s den, blasts out his feature on the computer via a montage set to The Clash, and convinces his editor Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to run the article, despite its surplus of criminal sources to a lack of credible on-record CIA sources. Oh, and after several warnings from CIA operatives and a government official played by Michael Sheen.
Once published, his story quickly ignites a national storm and crying outrage at the CIA for intentionally importing crack cocaine into the ravaged South Central Los Angeles and the black community. Webb is declared a hero and Journalist of the Year by the film’s second act, and is given some time for a victory lap with his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and children.
The movie then flops into a slow-burning account of Webb’s downfall by jealous rival news outlets and the CIA’s refusal to voice any response or responsibility for their dark alliance. It simply left the writer of this review feeling that pissed-off but resigned depression any informed person might get from reading about the world’s injustices on, well, news outlets.
Kill the Messenger suffers from genre identity crisis. For me, one of the more intriguing points in the movie was witnessing some journalistic Goliaths like the L.A. Times and the Washington Post undermine and cannibalize Webb out of the profession in order to cruelly camouflage their losing the story of a decade to a small-time daily. The film, however, merely glosses over conflicts of that kind of gravity, preferring to shift suddenly to irrelevant shots of Webb as the barbecuing family man or shots of his self-crippling paranoia; we tour a scene of domestic discord with his wife and one with his eldest son, his pursuit of an invisible threat in his driveway, and eventually it’s revealed that a salacious but ultimately forgivable “screw-up” forced Webb and his family to relocate from Ohio to California in the recent past. But before we’re given the chance to fully grasp those scenes’ dramatic value to the overall picture, the screenplay’s frenetic compass then whips us away with Webb to insolation in a Value Vista Motel “shit box” and journalism Siberia.
With more pleading than leading, there was no center to this film besides fulfilling Cuenta’s obvious goals of lionizing the real “simple” man and condemning the forces that ruined him. There was barely 40-minutes worth of Webb exercising the journalistic prowess that blazed the trail for others that would follow in his footsteps. The rest was stuffed with clichéd but important pontification, of the murmured and shouty varieties, punctuated by sporty motorcycle rides and glass punching Hamlet anguish.
Renner, De Witt and Winstead were the three gleaming champions at the helm of this meandering and bland biopic. Winstead as the young editor fully dedicated to Webb’s prophetic voice shares limited, but mostly electrifying repartee with Renner. DeWitt as Susan Webb gets props for playing the worried reporter’s wife with a quiet grace minus the all the trope-y and trophy melodrama. And finally there is Renner who, in his best performance yet, instantly captivates us with his Webb’s wild-eyed thirst and passion sustaining our interest and sympathies all the way to the movie’s poignant denouement.
Cuenta’s indie-fired angle on Webb’s story, if you will, focuses on the unjustified silencing of a man with the truth, no matter the unsavory and cloudy means he used to dig up “a story too true to be told.” Kill the Messenger works well as a celebration of one of the bravest and most tragic figures in journalism; when the CIA came forward with a 400-page report that confirmed the pillars of Webb’s piece, it was largely sidelined by the booming Lewinsky/Clinton scandal. This movie has a very important message that isn’t made clear until the end, and it direly needs to be watched — but it simply wasn’t the kind of sophisticatedly executed film that this message deserved.