Director: Michael Cuesta
Stars: Andy Garcia, Barry Pepper, Jeremy Renner, Lucas Hedges, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Sheen, Oliver Platt, Paz Vega, Ray Liotta,Rosemarie DeWitt, Tim Blake Nelson, Yul Vazquez
Released: 6th March 2015 (UK)
Kill the Messenger is a true tragedy. A discussion, a meditation on the human life and the countless directions it could go according to the mind that is guiding it. It is a story that takes on the model of what its main character goes through reinforcing the difficulty with which he experiences in trying to follow the guiding light he caught a glimpse of as a child. Despite what else might go on in his life Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is an idealistic journalist who believes in the power of his profession. He is a man held to the virtues of his responsibilities to the American public and, as he should, takes that responsibility seriously. He is as ambitious as he needs to be in wanting to crack the one big story that might break his career wide open and send him from the bowels of the San Jose Mercury News to the big leagues of the The Los Angeles Times or Washington Post though these ambitions never feel as important as his need to produce quality. What the film tells of more than it does necessarily follow the plot of the story Webb is investigating is the role of man in our society when he plays with the powers that be. What is wrong with our government if we are not allowed to question them without repercussion? In this case the repercussion is that of Webb becoming the story, his credibility called into question, rather than what he’d actually investigated and reported on being the story or point of focus. It is as much a commentary on the integrity of investigative journalism and how it has devolved into what we have today (the 24-hour news cycle on roids) as it is an interesting take on the state of our country which promises and promotes freedom, but will devour you if you take those liberties to a certain extent. Kill the Messenger is an engaging film, one reminiscent of those 1970’s Robert Redford films (namely All the President’s Men) taking the paranoid political thriller and transcending even that genre classification because of the real life weight the story holds. It is a film that I was thoroughly engrossed in from the way in which it developed Renner’s character, giving us more of who this man was than simply a hungry reporter, without allowing the film to become bogged down in details. It is as thoroughly engrossing as it is heartbreaking and as it comes to its conclusion it reveals itself to be truly that.
Based on the book of the same name by Nich Shou as well as the “Dark Alliance” series by Gary Webb himselfKill the Messenger opens in 1996 when Webb, a ground reporter at his small circulation newspaper, is approached by a woman (Paz Vega) with classified court documents that are beyond enticing. Naturally, he follows up by attending this woman’s boyfriends hearings that lead him to Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez). Blandon being a big time drug dealer and almost untouchable Webb goes to the lawyer of one Ricky Ross (Michael K. Williams) who is set to go to prison for drug dealing, but doesn’t realize Blandon isn’t in his corner as he and his lawyer Alan Fenster (Tim Blake Nelson) suspected. Once Webb is able to get Fenster to press Blandon in his questioning of why he decided to become a snitch for the government rather than stick with his allegiances in the drug world things become exposed that the CIA wouldn’t necessarily like getting out. When Webb runs with the story traveling around the globe to investigate his leads further he comes away with a three part piece that ignites a firestorm. The moment the story hits the airwaves his employer is receiving calls asking for interviews, wanting to know more as the journalism industry heaps awards and titles on Webb. Just as soon as the praise comes though the backlash begins with the more powerful publications going to any length necessary to poke holes in his story and the the CIA themselves becoming involved to the point of passively threatening Webb and his family. Things go from questionable to shady in a matter of what feels like days as Webb’s investigative skills soon become irrelevant and his personal life becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign. Webb’s allegations that the United States government used money from the sale of crack in the U.S. to help fund CIA-supported rebels in Nicaragua is nothing short of an explosive find, but it is not this bombshell that defines the story the film is telling but the man who decided telling it was worth everything that would inevitably follow.
What I admire most (and there is a lot to admire) about Kill the Messenger is its ability to effortlessly balance the reason our protagonist is has had a movie made about him as well as the influences around what made him an interesting man besides that fact. Yes, Webb is the central character of a major motion picture because he was a solid reporter who blew the roof off of a major story and now, with a little bit of perspective, we can see the hard truth behind what he was punished for at the time. More than this though, he is a human being who has a family, interests, and more importantly this set of ideals that compose a full human being-the only kind of human being that would have risked everything for the integrity of trying to spread the truth. It is sometimes difficult for films to find this type of balance when their narrative is so heavily plot driven, but besides the fact that Renner is clearly dedicated to his role here director Michael Cuesta and his screenwriter and former journalist Peter Landesman have composed a film that first looks at the story the man is telling and then peels away the layers of the man behind that story. The first hour of the film is very much set around Webb and his investigation techniques, his interviews with several sources and the process for which he puts together his story. Once the articles hit though and the media begins to turn the story from the CIA to Webb himself the film also shifts in its focus from this story a man wrote to what type of man it takes to write that story. It is a satisfying way to organically infiltrate the personal aspects of Webb’s life that play a part in both the decisions he’s already made and the repercussions that will not only affect him, but his wife, children and co-workers. Cuesta, who has directed countless hour long TV dramas, is in his element in the first hour as the film tracks down the necessary next steps to push the story further, but more he utilizes his aesthetic and award-winning cinematographer Sean Bobbit (12 Years A Slave) to really emphasize the look and color scheme of the time period in which this is set while making the camera movements and framing reminiscent of those aforementioned political thrillers.
In the second hour Kill the Messenger becomes much more of a character study in how it deals with the news story more or less being done in terms of how much further Webb can take it and more around the way in which Webb and his family deal with this unexpected road their lives took. What makes this work just as much as Landesman’s meticulous screenplay is the wonderful ensemble cast spread across its entire palette. While this is clearly Renner’s show, and he truly shines, it is also refreshing to see reliable faces in the smallest of roles that bring a sense of credibility to these serious and intense situations. Whether it be Barry Peeper, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia or Michael Sheen in single scenes or Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt serving as Webb’s editor and executive editor there is a presence to each of these people, making them more than archetypes but rather fully formed characters we can both sympathize with and be disappointed in depending on their actions. Doing much of the heavy lifting on the personal side of things is Rosemarie DeWitt as Mrs. Webb and Lucas Hedges as their oldest son. Each of these reliable actors do well to supplement the performance of Renner who plays Webb as a man unafraid to admit his mistakes, own up to them yet always anxious to move on. Speaking of Renner, it is a shame I can’t help but feel like this will be a film heavily overlooked. While I don’t mind seeing him in his several franchises he currently has in rotation this is the kind of unnerving performance Renner has delivered before with somewhat of a softer, more divulged side that serves to justify his talent all the more. In Webb we see a man who likely saw his life going in a certain direction that was completely taken off guard by an attack he never saw coming and a challenge he didn’t ask for, but was more than willing to endear if it meant the history books eventually gave him the credit he deserved. He is ultimately a tragic figure, driven so far by the backlash and lies thrust upon him that we see past the initially engaging elements of his story to a man just like us and it is Renner who brings that to light. Webb was clearly someone who hoped to lead a simple life, but saw it taken out from under him for pursuing the qualities his homeland was founded on.
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