'Kill the Messenger'
For a film that serves up a tragic true story for righteous indignation, ‘Kill the Messenger’ sure is surprisingly dull. The material is interesting, even incendiary. Yet somewhere between the facts and the drama, something was lost. The film constantly feels like it’s about to get exciting even though it never ceases to be routine. Although not really a bad movie, it’s definitely a disappointing one.
The story in question concerns mid-1990s San Jose Mercury News writer Gary Webb (played in the film by Jeremy Renner). While investigating local drug stories, Webb stumbled into the type of exposé that most journalists can only dream of. He discovered a Regan-era conspiracy in which the CIA illegally helped facilitate trafficking vast amounts of cocaine into the United States from Colombia. It allowed the U.S. to help fund war efforts, while Reagan’s War on Drugs deliberately made victims of the inner city African American communities through the explosion of crack. Webb risked his life uncovering the story through secret on-the-record trips to Colombia and secret off-the-record trips to Washington. When it was published, the story became an early viral hit and a media sensation. However, the frustrated government and the traditional news media who missed the story then went after Webb to discredit him and cover their tracks. In less than 12 months, Webb went from being named Journalist of the Year and appearing on every major news program to an unemployable disgrace – all for doing his job just a little too well.
It’s a pretty fascinating story that opens with heroic investigative journalism and closes with paranoid conspiracy crushing. Sounds like the type of thing that would make for an exciting movie, right? Absolutely, but unfortunately ‘Kill the Messenger’ isn’t that movie. Something about director Michael Cuesta’s approach is simply a little too soft to make the desired impact. The opening is too glossy, with sun-drenched trips to Colombian prisons looking too much like a tropical vacation retreat. (Andy Garcia’s casting as the drug kingpin certainly doesn’t help, as he’s far too charming to feel dangerous.) When the conspiracy in the final act arrives, it’s simply too repetitive and dragged down by family melodrama and awkward star cameos (particularly Ray Liotta’s CIA witness, whose scene should have been cut) to build up the right level of paranoia and tension. This is, after all, a tragically true story that deserved a harsh, ragged and real treatment to drive the facts home. Cuesta’s filmmaking style is just too slick and mainstream to achieve that effect. You feel like you’re watching actors in a scripted film rather than anything resembling life, and that kills the emotional impact.
It also doesn’t help that the lead role fell into the hands of Jeremy Renner. He was excellent in his breakout roles in ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘The Town’, but those were supporting character parts that he could disappear into. Ever since, he’s been stuck with noble leading man fare and he’s struggled. Like all character actors, he’s kind of a bland guy. He’s fine in ‘Kill the Messenger’, never embarrassing himself and even delivering a few strong scenes. The trouble is that “fine” isn’t enough to carry a movie like this and his vacuum of charisma often kills the movie in its tracks.
To be honest, “fine” is a pretty good word to describe the film as a whole. There’s a strong story at the core that’s executed perfectly competently by Cuesta, and the cast (including the likes of Rosemarie DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Michael Sheen) all deliver credible performances. The trouble is that a movie dealing with a story this dramatic, culturally relevant, and at times downright disturbing should never be described with a word like “fine.” The movie should be infuriating, exciting, emotional and shocking. ‘Kill the Messenger’ is none of those things. It’s just a mediocre treatment of a strong true-life story and is too concerned with being respectful to ever live up to its cinematic potential.