In today’s world of infotainment and dwindling newspaper sales, the idea of the vigilant, crusading journalist is all but gone. Newspapers can’t afford the kind of long-form investigative reporting to crack the biggest stories, even if there were more than a handful of reporters interested in that kind of thing. To that end, Gary Webb was old school, a reporter who put on his walking shoes and exposed the connection between the CIA and the influx of cocaine into this country. For his trouble he was discredited by the government and shunned by trusted peers, and his story should make for a thoughtful, compelling story in Kill the Messenger.
While Renner and director Michael Cuesta have their heart in the right place, Kill the Messenger very rarely goes beyond the basic points of Webb’s story. What happened to Webb was atrocious by any measure, but it’s more than just black/white or right/wrong; there’s a lot of gray area that we never see touched upon, or is glimpsed only in the slightest of strokes. Granted, it’s tough to live up to the example of All the President’s Men (in impossible standard) but the film reads too much like a Cliffs Notes look at Webb’s exposing of one of the biggest cover-ups in U.S. history.
Like the man himself, Renner’s version of Webb is a dogged and determined muckraker for the San Jose Mercury News. “Dogged and determined” comes off as brash and arrogant to some people, though, and Webb always seemed like a big fish in a very small pond. He was like many reporters looking for that one big story. Renner looks nothing like the real-life Webb, not that he needs to, but there was clearly an attempt to make him “cooler”, to look the part of a rebel reporter. Webb got his wish when he happened upon a story linking the CIA’s arming of Contra rebels in Nicaragua and the U.S. cocaine boom of the ’80s.
It was the kind of story any reporter would kill for, but it was also toxic in a way that would warn most people off. Despite numerous warnings from people on the inside telling him the story was dangerous, Webb soldiered on. His editors (led by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) pushed for it then hung Webb out to dry when things got too hot. His wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) grew suspicious and then fed up with his single-mindedness to see the story through to the end. As the powers that be began to slander him in public and ruin his career, the people closest to Webb also kept their distance. The story may have won him Journalist of the Year but it cost him everything else that mattered.
Where the film stumbles is in finding any deeper meaning in Webb’s struggle, beyond showing how badly he got screwed in his pursuit of the truth. The film works considerably better as he’s putting together the pieces of this gigantic puzzle, making for a cracking good political thriller in the process. Perhaps a shift in focus would have served screenwriter Peter Landesman better than this all-encompassing approach where we see Webb’s unfortunate downfall. What’s strange about it is Landesman, who wrote and directed the JFK assassination film Parkland, was a journalist who presumably knows the ins-and-outs of the trade, but he fails to include much of that in this story when it would have been beneficial. Shot economically and generically by Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave), the film never reaches beyond the familiar and certainly doesn’t have the snap of Cuesta’s Emmy-nominated episodes of Homeland.
An abundantly talented cast from top to bottom (Michael K. Williams, Paz Vega, Andy Garcia, Oliver Platt, Barry Pepper and many more) has been assembled and they all do solid, if somewhat forgettable work. There are so many tiny, bit parts that nobody gets much of a chance to shine. This is Renner’s film to carry and his Webb is a bulldog with a chip on his shoulder, but he’s also fiercely loyal and when his friends turned on him the betrayal he feels is palpable. Kill the Messenger ends with the kind of finger-wagging speech that you don’t get often in movies anymore because so few films are actually about anything. So for that reason
Kill the Messenger deserves credit for teaching us a needed lesson on questioning authority, it’s just unfortunate the film is hardly front page news.
NOTE: For more on Kill the Messenger, check out an interview with Renner and Cuesta here.