Featuring: Jeremy Renner, Robert Patrick, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Lucas Hedges
Director: Michael Cuesta
Screenwriter: Peter Landesman
Movie website: www.focusfeatures.com/kill_the_messenger
Australian release date: Thu 30 Oct
Verdict: A tense, generally well-executed thriller based on a true story, but formulaic in feel and black-and-white in its narrative and character presentation.
Conspiracy theorists will have no trouble accepting this depiction of the “true story” of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journo Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner). More so, the rest of us. Webb, an investigative reporter with the San Jose Mercury News, came to spectacular national notice in the 90s when he wrote a series of articles implicating the CIA in flooding US Streets with crack cocaine via some favoured drug lords, purportedly using the profits to arm rebels fighting to overthrow the dictatorship in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, the filmmakers undercut the credibility of the tale by presenting it as a simplistic battle of truth vs lies, courage vs cowardice, and – dang it – Good vs Evil.
All OK as far as it goes: without conflicting opposing forces there ain’t no drama. The problem here is that no true story is this black and white, no real-life protagonist as clearly and unequivocally Good as Webb. Sure, he has his little personal flaws – a past affair, for example, to which he owns up to the great disillusionment of his teenage son, and which causes ongoing hurt for his otherwise stoic wife (a pale nothing of a character played as well as can be expected by Rosemarie DeWitt, who has little to do but stand by her man and be dutiful mom to the kids).
Webb has plenty of opportunity to redeem himself, and he duly does, fearlessly breaking the story of the CIA’s nefarious illicit drug trade involvement, refusing to heed the cautions of crims in the know and his newspaper colleagues that he is jeopardising his career, his personal safety and that of his family. As the pressure to back down from his claims builds, he emerges as a martyr willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of truth, justice and…well, you know. By contrast, his colleagues show up as lily-livered, self-interested Judases prepared to sell him out and compromise their own journalistic principles to protect themselves from the wrath of the dreaded CIA.
In fact, the real Gary Webb divided the journalist world. One camp assessed his research as flawed and his evidence weighted towards his own biases, while others saw him from the heroic angle adopted by the filmmakers. Exploration of the grey regions located between these extreme positions might have made for a less formulaic and more thought-provoking film.
That said, as thrillers go, and leaving aside notions of real event accuracy, Kill The Messenger works quite well. It’s a slow-burner rather than an edge-of-the-seat nailbiter, but tension is maintained throughout, and there are some well-handled moments of comic relief. Jeremy Renner sells his character convincingly in the context of the movie, which is just as well given the whack of screen time he is allotted (to the detriment of some other roles, and the actors who play them).
There’s a niggling sense, however, that the subject matter might have been better suited to a documentary treatment than a dramatization. The implications made about the CIA are clearly extremely serious, but perhaps the most meaningful comment in this film is at the very end, when we learn via text that Webb died of two gunshot wounds to the head in 2004, with the coroner’s verdict being suicide.
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