KILL THE MESSENGER
Reviewed by cathal kavanagh
With a speedily propelled, exceedingly efficient plot, and produced for the comparatively paltry sum of 5 million dollars, Michael Cuesta’s thriller Kill The Messenger has an awful lot to recommend it. Well made, well told and oftentimes quite compelling, it’s nonetheless in no way destined for cult status, nor is it in line for a cultural legacy far beyond the midweek movie slot on terrestrial television. It’s just that type of film; the type of film for which ‘very good’ is nearly the only thing one can say about it, without descending into tedium, repetition and sophistry. But we shall have to try.
It’s Clinton-era Los Angeles, and Gary Webb, a reporter for the mid-sized daily the San Jose Mercury News, is investigating the repossession of alleged drug dealers’ properties before they have yet been convicted. Tipped off as to the potential, hidden links between the cocaine trade, the CIA, and the government’s 1980s shenanigans in Central America, Webb, played by second tier Avenger Jeremy Renner, takes it upon himself to dig. Dealers and prisoners of various shades are interviewed. Political types and agency men remain cryptic and tight-lipped. Eventually, the investigation is assembled into a three-part feature story for the newspaper, accusing the intelligence agency and the government of tacit support for the cocaine trade into the United States as a means of illicitly funding CONTRA militias when Congress wouldn’t agree. Plaudits and accolades cascade unto Webb. Award ceremonies and flagship news programs come calling. And thus, having swiftly ascended to the heights of intrepidity and journalistic integrity, he is well-positioned for an inglorious fall from grace.
It would be disingenuous of us to describe the above and what follows it as being unoriginal or formulaic. As the title card reminds us, this film is based on a true story. Webb the man really did uncover these supposedly shady dealings, and the rest of the media establishment really did attack him for it. That they did, perhaps, is one of the ways in which the film lets is forced to let itself down. As much as it may try to position itself as an All The President’s Men-style homage to investigative journalism, it’s hard to escape the conclusion for much of the picture that some of the criticisms of his work were merited. Sources were lacking. Some of his conclusions, it seems, were in fact questionable. The fact that we are never, even implicitly, made aware of exactly what it is that Webb is getting close to uncovering, just how culpable the government actually were, tends to compound the problem. Renner’s Webb is not destined to become a hero of modern cinema; indeed, the film has trouble making him into the ‘hero’ of his own story.
Renner gives a fine performance, for what it’s worth. Hero or not, he portrays Webb convincingly as a fundamentally good man, who is assaulted and dragged into disrepute by a questionably principled establishment. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt put in solid shifts as Webb’s editors. If the film succeeds in one area, it is in its depiction of the inner workings of the press. The political dimension is given sufficient weight. A shame then, that much of the rest of the picture deals in unfortunately chosen clichés and overworked tropes. One of our only Hispanic characters wears tight dresses and insists on calling Gary Webb “Gary Webb” after every couple of sentences. The ex-rebel in a Nicaraguan prison wears a cloth necktie, and talks as if in an ad for coffee or Uncle Ben’s. When Renner gets around to typing up his story, The Clash’s “Know Your Rights” accompanies the unnecessary montage. You know the sort of thing. None of this condemns the film, but it certainly prohibits it from entering the realm of the greats.
As mentioned, the plot clips along at a sufficiently frenetic pace. Unobtrusively shot for the most part in a style of simply accomplished realism, the film is never less than enjoyable to look at. For whatever faults it may have, the story does manage to draw us in, giving us a reasonably compelling, well-told take on potentially discombobulating material. The negative elements highlighted in this review should not be seen as dismissive. This is quite a good film, with a host of solid performances and a regularly intriguing subject matter. A good film. But nothing more.