Director: Michael Cuesta
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Andy Garcia, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen, Barry Pepper, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ray Liotta
Hollywood has a history of celebrating the heroic investigative journalist who, spurred on by an ardent belief in the public’s right to know, exposes corruption in the system and keeps the government and its institutions accountable. But with his political thriller Kill the Messenger, Michael Cuesta uses the true story of San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb to deliver a cautionary tale about the potential ramifications of crusading journalism.
In 1996 Webb penned an explosive series of articles which alleged links between US intelligence services and the Central American cocaine trade during the 1980s. The three-part series, called “Dark Alliance,” suggested that the CIA was aware that Nicaraguan rebels were smuggling cocaine into the US but opted not to intervene as they were using the profits to arm Contra militia in their civil war against Nicuragua’s Sandinista government. These revelations caused outrage not only because it amounted to a violation of congressional rulings that the CIA was not to aid the Contras, but because the resulting crack cocaine epidemic had ravaged the African American community. Not only did Webb’s work ruffle feathers at the CIA, it also raised the ire of the larger newspapers – the New York and Los Angeles Times in particular – embarrassed that this huge story had passed them by.
Where Kill the Messenger is interesting, and deviates from the model of All the President’s Men, is in its exploration of the aftermath of the exposé. Webb’s investigation only makes up part of the film. The publication of “Dark Alliance” comes at about the halfway point and the rest of the film is about what happens to him as a result of his actions. Rather than make Webb’s career, it destroys him. We see the expected denials from the CIA and their efforts to intimidate him – he is unnervingly reassured “we would never threaten your children, Mr. Webb” – but what is more confronting is the way that he is cannibalised by peers in the press. The embarrassment of the bigger newspapers for missing the scoop leads them to devote their energy not to investigating the story but to discrediting Webb and his methods, often through overinflating his claims. Ultimately, the distressing thing is not that the government silenced him or destroyed him, it is that they didn’t have to.
While Kill the Messenger invites comparison to some of the great political thrillers of the past, it is not quite of that level. The film is a bit hit and miss; more interesting than it is engaging. It moves so quickly through the investigation phase that it is difficult to keep up with the ins and outs of the case, and to fully appreciate the significance of each new piece of information. Director Michael Questa is best known for his work in television (he has directed a number of episodes of Homeland), and it is fair to say that there are moments in which Kill the Messenger feels more like a television show than a movie. In fact it may have been better served as a TV miniseries where it would have had a bit more time to explore the intricacies of its plot.
It is Jeremy Renner that really makes Kill the Messenger worth watching, as he gives arguably his best performance since The Hurt Locker. He is obviously really invested in this project, also acting as one of the film’s producers. The film is very much on Webb’s side. We are never invited to question his information or his ethics, as other characters do. But Renner brings the light and shade to the character which prevents Webb from being a two-dimensional hero, a simplistic crusader for truth. Renner is supported by quite an impressive cast, fleshed out with a series of single scene cameos from quite big names; Andy Garcia, Michael Sheen, Robert Patrick, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ray Liotta.
Kill the Messenger is one for lovers of conspiracy theories, and with its story not being as well-known as some other conspiracy thrillers, it will leave you with a bit of homework to do when you exit the cinema.
Review by Duncan McLean
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