Larger-than-life true stories are catnip for Hollywood, as if the “this really happened” imprint lend more gravitas and import than fictional narratives that are potentially just as trenchant, or even more so. The problem therein lies not only with doing the story justice, but seeing beyond the compelling details and transforming them into something with moving dramatic heft, with the freedom of fiction often being a much more pliant tool. Like most alluring substances, the attracting agents within the true story can also be blinding. Which is ironic for a movie about truth and facts (and miscarriages of justice).
This is the central flaw of “Kill The Messenger,” an overly idealistic drama that cannot see beyond the unjust and unfair tragedies that befell its protagonist. On paper, the true story behind “Kill The Messenger” is a heartbreaking one and an utter travesty. In the mid ‘90s, San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb stumbled onto and uncovered the remnants of a sprawling, complex drugs-and-arms conspiracy, detailing the CIA’s role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into California. Despite being employed at a small-time paper, Webb’s expose would win him a journalist of the year award, but at a heavy cost. His story was simply too hot, and the journalist tugged on a thread that unraveled at a vicious pace.
Scapegoated by a complicit media and a cowardly Mercury News editorial team that threw him under the bus, Webb was savagely discredited by the powers that be, eventually losing his career and family in the process. By the end of it all, he would never work in journalism again, and when belatedly exonerated years later when more facts came to light, the nation, too consumed with the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, failed to notice or care. Gary Webb lost everything in his obsessive fight to reveal the truth.
But this is the principal fault with “Kill The Messenger,” a well intentioned, but uneven love letter to honorable “truth-seeking” journalists. The film has little to say beyond its shedding light on this little known story and then declaring, “wasn’t this disgraceful?” “Kill The Messenger” hopes to solemnly lionize and exonerate Webb, but rarely does it reflect anything back to its audience other than reminding us how corrupt and unprincipled our system is.
Doing his best Robert Redford impression—at least in spirit—Jeremy Renner stars (and produces) as Gary Webb. Part political thriller, part ethically-charged moral drama, and part valentine to “responsible” old school media, ‘Messenger’ is made in the wannabe mold of “All The President’s Men,” and similar Alan J. Pakula-helmed films of the 1970s, but lacks the same finesse and sophistication.
Structural issues abound. The heart of the movie is the scapegoat drama that surrounds Webb and ultimately ruins his life, but an hour of this film’s 110-minute run time acts like a complex ‘70s intrigue and conspiracy thriller. The effect is like that of two different movies with mismatching tones, and the downshifting of gears from thriller to drama isn’t the smoothest transition.
An MOR presentation doesn’t help matters. While “12 Years A Slave” DP Sean Bobbitt lenses the picture, and up-and-comer Nathan Johnson is the composer, neither of their work goes beyond the familiar, and at times they fall into generic thriller tropes. Conventionally told, aside from some misjudged montages and missteps (The Clash’s “Know Your Rights” is deeply misused, for one), ‘Messenger’ feels pretty run of the mill.
As demonstrated by its massive cast—Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, Barry Pepper, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Richard Schiff, Michael K. Williams, Michael Sheen, Robert Patrick, Gil Bellows—the drama’s story is sprawling and frequently gets overstuffed with bit parts that are essentially glorified cameos from actors you’ll at least recognize (apparently every favor that could be called in, was).
Having to cover so much ground—obligation and fealty to “how it happened” facts—“Kill The Messenger” might have been better served as a mini-series, able to give equal attention to Webb’s surprisingly rich home life and the trickery with the conspiracy he uncovers. Directed by Michael Cuesta (indie drama “12 And Holding,” the Emmy-winning director of “Homeland” episodes), many movies can manage such complexities within two hours, but he struggles to maintain all these extensive elements. It’s surprisingly coherent, bar the hiccup from story A to story B, but still feels strained throughout.
Frustrating is the fact that ‘Messenger’ is never too broad, and while at times it is nuanced and subtle, it remains too safe and general to ever really connect. Cuesta’s picture works best when the tables are turned on Renner’s character and he becomes the target of a smear campaign to discredit his claims. Renner and DeWitt make a convincing couple, and though it’s perhaps superfluous to the core story, the most effective element of the movie is the family dynamic. The surprise stand-out of the cast is a young Lucas Hedges, who plays Renner’s teenage son, alternately proud and disillusioned by his father over the course of the movie’s events (and now I’m convinced Hedges should have been on our actors to watch under 20 list).
Renner’s character is well drawn, and well defined too, as a flawed, obsessive man, but also a good father and husband. He’s a tenacious bulldog, which makes him ideal as a reporter, but also a pain in the ass. As such, both his editors and family occasionally feel the brunt of that relentlessness. And Renner, a producer on the film, captures all this texture well with an admirably unshowy performance.
But sensibly portraying Webb as a blemished individual, “Kill The Messenger” still idealizes its protagonist too much. Clearly a passion project that regards its protagonist as, if not a hero, at least an unsung honorable man, the movie backs away from suggesting Webb had bitten off more then he could chew, taking on a story way outside his regular beat, without the kind of key political relationships he might’ve benefited from.
In some ways, “Kill The Messenger” is a ballsy movie—the climax is a damning speech aimed at the media establishment, for crying out loud, and those kinds of movies went out with the dodo bird. And thus, this sincere movie feels like it’s arrived at least a decade behind schedule. “Kill The Messenger” has the courage of its convictions, that’s for certain. The movie is a throwback to idealistic dramas of a different era, but it feels dated and even quietly self-congratulatory. For certain, Gary Webb’s story is worth telling, and what happened to the man should be remembered as a shame for journalism, if not the nation. But “Kill The Messenger” lacks the light touch necessary to make a “Michael Clayton“-esque morality drama. Ultimately too jejune and even a little hokey in spots, ‘Messenger’ has a lot of heart and passion. It’s even a little soulful in its best quiet moments, but the well-meaning film does not possess the skills to transform its admirable ambitions into something with lasting resonance. [C]