With Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Robert Patrick, Michael Sheen, and Ray Liotta; Written by Peter Landesman; Directed by Michael Cuesta; Rated R for language and drug content; 112 minutes.
Watching KILL THE MESSENGER is an incredibly frustrating experience, but not in ways the filmmakers intended. This is a sensational true-life story, chilling in its implications but plodding in execution. The muddled movie contains all the elements of a top-notch muckraker, deployed erratically and to increasingly diminished returns.
Jeremy Renner (who also produced the picture) stars as Gary Webb, an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who in 1996 stumbled upon the story of a lifetime. Thanks to an accidentally leaked Grand Jury transcript slipped to him by the va-va-voom wife (Paz Vega) of a local drug kingpin, Webb tumbles down a rabbit hole of corruption to discover the C.I.A.’s role in funding the Contras via cocaine smuggling back during Ronnie Reagan’s Nicaraguan misadventures.
It’s a powder-keg of a piece, one potentially too huge for a small potatoes NorCal daily paper. (“We don’t do international,” sighs his beleaguered publisher played by Oliver Platt.) While a murderer’s row of great character actors drop into the movie for a scene or two trying to either tip him off or warn him off, Renner’s Webb pursues the story with a dogged determination just this side of parody. Peering out from behind aviator shades, this denim-clad, motorcycle-riding hotshot journalist even blasts The Clash’s “Know Your Rights” (on vinyl, no less!) while writing his articles. It’s a bit much.
Working from multiple sources, screenwriter Peter Landsman (who penned and helmed last year’s pointless Kennedy assassination procedural, “Parkland”) has a difficult time laying out the conspiracy with any clarity. We mostly have to just roll with Renner’s bug-eyed reaction shots to stuff like Andy Garcia’s imprisoned coke kingpin name-dropping “Ollie” North. The breadth of this particular tale is perhaps better suited to a television miniseries, a notion hammered home by director Michael Cuesta’s basic-cable sense of scope.
Ever since his 2001 indie breakthrough “L.I.E.,” (which ranks just behind “Zodiac” as the second-most terrifying movie to prominently feature both Brian Cox and Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”), Cuesta has worked mainly in television, directing the pilots for “Blue Bloods,” “Elementary,” and “Homeland.” More dutiful than outraged, there’s a flat, budget-conscious functionality to “Kill the Messenger” that feels designed for a smaller screen.
Still, it’s impossible not to get your dander up over what happened next. It seems the C.I.A.’s intimidation tactics have nothing on our modern media’s professional pettiness. Embarrassed after being scooped by this small town paper, larger news outlets set about assigning dozens of reporters to pick apart Webb’s story. “They’re going to controversial-ize you,” warned Michael Sheen’s Washington politico, and sure enough the reporter’s findings are largely ignored in favor of a nit-picky smear campaign groaningly familiar in our depressing twenty-four-hour news cycle. No matter that the Mercury News backed up the piece with extensive documentation on the then nascent World Wide Web, perception is everything in this sound-byte culture and Gary Webb was marginalized and painted in the press as a kook.
This is pungent stuff, but a similar case was portrayed far more vividly in Michael Mann’s The Insider – a movie that Cuesta and company obviously watched more than once in their preparations. Kill the Messenger’s pacing grows more languid and the focus grows more diffuse as it goes along, just when the paranoia should be ramping up. (“Ollie” Stone could have knocked this one out of the park.)
The movie bogs down in domestic melodrama involving Webb’s wife (Rosemarie DeWitt, trying her best with a character who seems to have a different motivation in every scene) and teenage son (Lucas Hedges.) Renner is, at heart, a weirdo character actor whose live-wire performance in “The Hurt Locker” resulted in Hollywood mistakenly shoving him into leading man parts for which he’s ill-equipped. Whether flinging arrows as the lamest Avenger or starring as The Bourne Lazenby, this actor who once played Jeffrey Dahmer and walked away with “The Town” feels strait-jacketed in straight roles. He gets progressively less interesting here the more he’s martyred, and for all its admirable ambitions, “Kill the Messenger” ultimately boils down to one of those movies where the slighted underdog gets to stand up at a podium at the end and deliver a corny speech “telling it like it is.”
In actuality, two years later the C.I.A. confirmed that Webb’s reporting was indeed correct, but by then nobody cared anymore because we were all crotch-deep in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Gary Webb committed suicide in 2004. “Kill The Messenger” saves these revelations for the closing credits, which in journalism is what we call burying the lede.•••
Over the past fifteen years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.