Synopsis: Two-time Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy) leads an all-star cast in a dramatic thriller based on the remarkable true story of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb. Webb stumbles onto a story which leads to the shady origins of the men who started the crack epidemic on the nation’s streets…and further alleges that the CIA was aware of major dealers who were smuggling cocaine into the U.S., and using the profits to arm rebels fighting in Nicaragua. Despite warnings from drug kingpins and CIA operatives to stop his investigation, Webb keeps digging to uncover a conspiracy with explosive implications. His journey takes him from the prisons of California to the villages of Nicaragua to the highest corridors of power in Washington, D.C. – and draws the kind of attention that threatens not just his career, but his family and his life.
Release Date: October 10, 2014 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Drama, Thriller
Much like 2012’s Argo, Kill the Messenger puts the spotlight on an often-overlooked moment in modern US history. Both are tight political dramas with strong leading characters, and both try to deliver historical events in a very matter of fact manner. And where Affleck’s film highlighted the good in the US government, the Jeremy Renner led Kill The Messenger highlights the bad. It’s worth bringing up Argo because it typifies what Kill the Messenger could have been. The film comes so close to greatness in its first half, that it’s all the more confounding that Kill The Messenger falls apart in the second.
For those who might not be familiar, Kill the Messenger follows Gary Webb (American Hustle‘s Jeremy Renner), an investigative journalist for the San Jose Mercury News who stumbles upon a bombshell of a story. Through pure happenstance, and then some deep investigation, Webb uncovers a plot that alleges the government (specifically the CIA) helped funnel drugs into the US, and in return funded a war in Nicaragua. It’s the type of story that not only earns someone world renown, but puts them in the crosshairs of some high-ranking officials. As the title suggests, Webb’s story draws some undue attention, and with that his credibility starts to unravel at the seams. He stands by his story, and we as the viewer see that he’s not lying, but with no leg to stand on it becomes hard to back up such a controversial piece.
With that strong base, Kill the Messenger should have been an easy home run. Jeremy Renner carries the material well as a pushy journalist and the direction, while not overly flashy, is solid. Moreover, everything is put together in such a calculated way that it’s hard to criticize the film’s component parts. Watching Webb dig deep into this story of government corruption is both fascinating and informative, but once he publishes the piece Kill the Messenger quickly loses momentum. What was, at first, a purposeful drama eventually unravels to become threadbare and focus-less.
It’s as if the filmmakers knew there was a worthwhile story to tell, but weren’t sure how exactly to tell it. Most movies like this end with some bits of text that explain what happened in the years following these events, but Kill the Messenger‘s postscript actually felt essential to the plot. Why those later elements were not included in the picture, therefore making it complete, is confusing to say the least. Ambiguity is fine in certain circumstances, but when your film makes such a clear stance on what is fact and what is fiction there shouldn’t be any. For that matter, the film filters every element through Webb’s experience, which means we never see the full picture. We only know what other characters tell Webb about retracted statements and missing witnesses, but it rarely is explained just what sort of governmental magic is pulling his story apart.
Had this been a documentary about Gary Webb’s story, it might have been more effective than as a narrative film. Getting to see the journalist put together his story is easily the best part of the movie, but one engaging half does not a good film make. Strong performances from Jeremy Renner and most of the cast keep the film’s polish at a high level, as does the confident direction from Michael Cuesta, but in the end it doesn’t feel like Kill the Messenger makes a strong enough case for its existence. Gary Webb’s story is worth knowing, but Kill The Messenger is not the proper vessel.
The acting in Kill the Messenger is only worth mentioning because if the script had been better we might be talking Best Actor awards. Jeremy Renner is pitch perfect as the determined Webb, and balances the hard-nosed reporter with the devoted family man. He really does carry the material as best he can, but like the film as a whole his performance is much stronger in the first half. As for the rest of the cast, they are fine – not particularly memorable, but not phoning it in either. There are a lot of muted performances, but that feels by design.
All that said, the real standout of the film is Lucas Hedges (The Zero Theorem), who plays Gary’s son Ian. Hedges’ performance is the one true example of the vulnerability and fear that comes with such heavy material; he’s exceptional in the film and has a bright future ahead.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Michael Cuesta
- Screenwriter(s): Peter Landesman
- Cast: Jeremy Renner (Gary Webb)Robert Patrick (Ronald J. Quail)Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Anna Simons) Rosemarie DeWitt (Sue Webb)Paz Vega (Coral Baca)Barry Pepper (Russell Cornejo)Andy Garcia (Norwin Meneses)
- Editor(s): Brian A. Kates
- Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer:
- Casting Director(s):
- Music Score: Nathan Johnson
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: USA