If Conspiracy movies have taught us anything, it is that the truth can be a dangerous thing. Many cinematic anti-heroes have been faced with scandalous truths, and faced with the decision of whether or not to reveal it to the public and further provoke distrust in a commanding government. We’ve seen plenty of these characters in the mould of various Hollywood stars, from Redford, to Cruise, to Clooney, all of whom had some degrees of success. Jeremy Renner leads this true-life tale of fabrication and publication, and while some of the tropes of the political thriller are present, the outcome is not your typical resolution.
Kill the Messenger charts the investigation conducted by small-time reporter Gary Webb (Renner) in the mid-1990’s as he uncovered a disturbing link between the CIA and the drug issue in Los Angeles. Webb unwittingly uncovers that the CIA played an alleged role in importing crack cocaine into the US in order to secretly fund Nicaraguan contra rebels. Despite many individuals, both at home and from the government, warnings not to run the story, Gary and his editors go ahead anyway, setting Gary down a path of no return, as he must fight against a severe smear campaign.
From what I can gather, as is usually the case, some historical compromises have been made to portray Webb as a man of journalistic integrity, whose work (which was published under the title ‘Dark Alliance’) was based on cold hard facts. The film does portray him as a flawed anti-hero but one who is ultimately likeable due to a charismatic personality that comes part and parcel with casting someone like Renner. The issues concerning Webb’s work were, and remain, related to the legitimacy of his allegations and his lack of evidence to support some of the more volatile claims. The film is very clearly in support of Webb and his work, which does make it difficult to form your own opinions on the events and the work itself, robbing the film of a great deal of sophistication that it easily could have had.
The means to which the investigation is carried out and the way the script organises them is very by-the-numbers, meaning that Kill the Messenger fails to truly differentiate itself on the political thriller spectrum. What is an issue is how the script doesn’t seem to realise that the details of the CIA’s relationship with both the import of drugs and Nicaragua are very complicated, and the film struggles to both convey what it is that makes this issue so severe, and also exactly what happened. It certainly does not pander to the audience, but it proves more to its detriment than its benefit, as you often left questioning what is happening rather than being all that involved.
Director Michael Cuesta is perhaps best known for his work on Showtime’s Homeland, and that type of pedigree is very much prevalent within his fifth feature. He is credited for laying down the aesthetic of Homeland, haven directed the pilot episode, but within Kill the Messenger, he fails to do anything particularly provocative. There are the occasional moments of inspiration, namely in how he employs Nathan Johnson’s tense score, and in how he mounts scenes, playing with our expectations of how they should unfold. But ultimately these moments of directorial wit are far and few, resulting in a film that is perfectly adequately staged, but is in truth rather bland, only serving to remind us of better political thrillers past.
What makes Kill the Messenger a worthwhile experience is that it does have an interesting story at its heart, one that I, and I’m sure many others, were not aware of. Even more worthwhile is the cast who bring the story to life, namely Renner himself. Hawkeye easily turns in his best performance since The Town, portraying Webb as an incredibly flawed individual who struggles to think of his family and others before himself and his own work. It is a very charismatic performance that serves to remind us that Renner is an excellent character actor outside of the blockbuster fare. Elsewhere, there are a lot of talented faces in both significant and fleeting roles. The likes of Robert Patrick, Michael K. Williams and Ray Liotta turn up for quite literally one scene, while more impact is made by Rosemarie DeWitt as Webb’s wife who struggles to continue to support her husband’s work, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Webb’s conflicted editor.
Kill the Messenger is not going to be a film that people will remember come the end of the year. It is very much one of those March releases that will quickly get lost in the shuffle of the upcoming summer releases, and this is largely because the film itself is not all that memorable. Mildly distracting and well performed, there is certainly a film and story worth engaging with here, but don’t expect anything particularly unique.
3/5- Well performed and with the odd moment of inspiration, Kill the Messenger tells an intriguing story in a very routine fashion, amounting in a distracting, yet unremarkable, experience.