Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Michael Cuesta
Stars: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie De Witt, Oliver Platt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Andy Garcia, Richard Jenkins, Michael Sheen, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, Robert Patrick, Barry Pepper.
In the 1980s the Reagan administration waged a covert war on drugs. But it was a war that created some strange bedfellows. At the same time, the CIA was apparently helping drug dealers smuggle crack cocaine into the urban ghettoes of Los Angeles and other American cities, and using the funds to help prop up the Contra rebels fighting in Nicaragua. This was supposedly how the epidemic of crack cocaine on American streets, which is still a serious social problem today, began.
In 1996, investigative reporter Gary Webb (played by Jeremy Renner, from The Hurt Locker, American Hustle, etc), who worked for the small San Jose Mercury New, uncovered one of the biggest government conspiracies in years, when he stumbled upon documents revealing the connection between the CIA, Nicaraguan drug smugglers and the scourge of crack cocaine on American streets. Webb doggedly followed the many leads he uncovered, and even travelled to Nicaragua to talk to imprisoned notorious drug lord Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia), who still seemed to control a vast criminal empire from prison.
As he uncovered the truth, Webb found he and his family threatened, and pressure was brought to bear on his editors to try and suppress the story and stop his investigation. Despite increasing pressure, Webb published a series of articles under the title of Dark Alliance. But other major newspapers were upset at missing the story, and they also took the CIA’s denials at face value. Webb’s reputation was smeared, and even other newspaper colleagues pilloried him.
Webb eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for his series of articles. In 2004 the CIA released unclassified documents that supported Webb’s allegations, but the media was too distracted by the Clinton-Lewinski scandal to notice. Webb was also found dead in his hotel room under slightly mysterious circumstances in 2004. Although his death was ruled a suicide, Kill The Messenger suggests that there may well have been more to his death and that the truth has been covered up.
Kill The Messenger is based on Webb’s own series of articles and the book by Nick Schou. The script has been written by Peter Landesman, a former journalist himself, whose previous credits include Trade, a drama about the sex slave trade in Mexico, and Parkland, a drama set on the day of the Kennedy assassination. An intriguing story about an investigative journalist trying to expose a dark and hidden truth at the heart of a wide reaching conspiracy, Kill The Messenger could have been an All The President’s Men for the new millennium. But thanks to some rather prosaic direction from Michael Cuesta (who has worked on tv series like Homeland and Dexter, etc) it lacks the same sense of urgency and intensity as that intelligent and expertly crafted thriller about a pair of journalists who eventually brought down the US President.
The 70s produced a number of paranoid thrillers about investigative journalists uncovering dark government conspiracies, including films like The Parallax View, which had more of a sense of immediacy and urgency than this film. Most of those films were shot a few years after the events they depicted, whereas here Kill The Messenger is dealing with events some two decades earlier, and as such loses that sense of urgency. The first half of this film is quite tense at times, but is let down by a lacklustre second half, which mainly follows Webb’s family issues, lacks the same sense of suspense and urgency, and also lacks impact.
Recent films like The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy have seen Renner cast as an action hero, but he is capable of more nuanced and intelligent performances. He is coming off the back of a couple of strong performances in films like American Hustle, and he brings a passion and intensity to his portrayal of Webb, who was determined to pursue the truth. Renner effectively conveys the toll that events take on his health and mental state. One of the problems though is that the character of Webb as depicted here is obsessed, driven and unlikeable and unsympathetic. It is hard for audiences to warm to his character and his pursuit of the truth at any cost. At least with All The President’s Men, we had a couple of intrepid journalists who were likeable and affable in their pursuit of the truth.
Cuesta has assembled a strong supporting cast that includes Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his editors who initially support his investigation but who eventually cave in to pressure. Rosemarie De Witt plays Susan, Webb’s long suffering wife, but it is a fairly thankless part. Veterans of the calibre of Richard Jenkins, Michael Sheen, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, Robert Patrick and Barry Pepper contribute small but important cameos.