Kill the Messenger's Crusading Journalist Concept Has Been Done Better
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- Updated Feb 13, 2015
DVD Release Date: February 10, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: October 10, 2014
Rating: R for language and drug content
Run Time: 112 min.
Director: Martin Cuesta
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Michael Sheehan
Stories about heroic journalists often make for underwhelming cinema, but Hollywood keeps bringing us the tales of reporters tackling thorny stories involving corrupt government officials—or the government itself. A few years after director Kevin Macdonald’s middling State of Play (2009), which concluded with a whimper as its journalist protagonist (played by Russell Crowe) sat at a keyboard and started to type an article, Kill the Messenger brings to theaters the story of Gary Webb, a San Jose Mercury News reporter who took on the CIA in the 1990s.
As Kill the Messenger's on-the-nose title indicates, he loses. The film goes a long way to indict the CIA and the mainstream journalists that did the agency's bidding, but in the end it offers no answers or hope for how to confront such an entity. Instead, the movie is a despair-laden rehabilitation project about Webb's reputation.
Webb (Jeremy Renner, The Avengers) is a happily married father of three children, but that hasn't always been the case. His wife (Rosemarie DeWitt, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) reminds him that the family's move to the San Jose area owes something to Webb's past behavior. That allusion will be fleshed out later in the film, once Webb's profile has risen high enough to earn him enemies who want to deflect Webb's allegations by turning other reporters, and the public, against him.
A call to Webb leads to the reporter obtaining a copy of grand jury testimony that points to the CIA's involvement in a scheme to funnel drug-sale profits to the Contras in Nicaragua. The charges also include the explosive allegation that the CIA's work perpetuated the crack epidemic that plagued America's inner cities, outraging figures like Congresswoman Maxine Waters and leading to public protests.
Webb's three-part series, "Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion," is greeted with initial enthusiasm in the newsroom and with admiration and awards from other journalists, but soon the CIA has the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times questioning Webb's sources and reporting on Webb's affair with a colleague at a previous job. The earlier glory for Webb turns to professional and personal humiliation when the reporter's sources can't be confirmed.
Renner is convincing as the cocky but eventually overwhelmed Webb, and the rest of the cast is effective in roles that are far less juicy. Ray Liotta (The Identical) is particularly memorable as a key source that confirms Webb's story but won't go public in Webb's defense. That's the very type of sourcing the Post and Times questioned in their own reporting on "Dark Alliance," but which Kill the Messenger unquestioningly accepts as truth.
With its scenes of a desperate reporter confronting both high-level corruption and peer skepticism, Kill the Messenger will feel familiar to anyone who's seen The Insider, All the President's Men or any of the many better films about crusading journalists. While well shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) and a step up for director Michael Cuesta, known mainly for his TV work on shows like Dexter and Homeland, Kill the Messenger feels too familiar. We usually know where the story is going before it gets there, and the one-sided presentation (always supportive of Webb) leaves us wondering if any of the allegations against the reporter might hold up. Alas, the movie is interested only in Webb's vindication.
Such concerns may seem petty in light of the supporting evidence for much of Webb's allegations, but the nagging sense that Kill the Messenger isn't presenting the whole story hurts the film, which wants to insist on Webb's professional righteousness. At times the reporter's personal struggles with his family hold more dramatic interest than his workplace drama, especially when Webb must answer his son's very direct questions about infidelity. Confrontation between husbands and wives about past indiscretions are not unusual at the movies, but a son's interrogation of his father is something we don't often see.
If only Kill the Messenger had a few more scenes that felt similarly fresh and unpredictable.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; multiple uses of the “f” word; multiple other uses of foul language
- Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: Political speeches about drugs are heard while newspaper headlines report on the rising drug problem in the United States; underage son drinks a beer in front of his parents; one character is said to have been arrested for narcotics a decade before the Contra war; a joint is smoked; Gary takes prescription pills
- Sex/Nudity: Discussion of Gary’s previous adultery; Gary and his wife lay in bed, covered by bed sheets; a CIA agent says he slept with some of his contacts
- Violence/Crime: Gunfire; Gary’s children are threatened; a car window is broken out, and the car is punched and kicked
- Religion/Morals/Marriage: Gary’s past infidelity is raised during the backlash over his story, and is discussed among Gary, his wife and son; Gary tells his son, “The bad guys usually are more honest than the good guys”; plot centers on an allegation that the CIA oversaw a drug-running operation; discussion of a suicide
Publication date: October 10, 2014