Kill the Messenger, 2014.
Directed by Michael Cuesta.
Starring Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Michael Sheen, Robert Patrick, Tim Blake Nelson, Ray Liotta, Michael K. Williams, Barry Pepper, Andy Garcia, Rosemarie DeWitt and Oliver Platt.
A reporter becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign that drives him to the point of suicide after he exposes the CIA’s role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into California. Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb.
There’s so much deep and fascinating detail to cover in Kill the Messenger, it’s a wonder the film didn’t get swallowed up by the multiple strands which lay between conspiracy thriller, journalistic cautionary tale and biopic. It’s a credit to director Michael Cuesta and lead star Jeremy Renner that their film ends up being one of the better ‘based on a true story’ films of the last year.
The story had me from the very start as I have always had an interest in government conspiracies and cover ups and knew a thing or two about the 1980s CIA/Contra drug trafficking affair. Like All the President’s Men or The Insider (two films you can’t help but think of watching this, and that’s no bad thing either) Michael Cuesta is focused on the story and the central character and how the quest for and to expose the truth changes lives forever. Cuesta keeps his film lively in the first hour with montages of real life footage and news coverage, reminding his audience that this story was very much a big deal, even if it’s one which is perhaps today rarely spoken about (ask ‘Joe Public’ who Oliver North is and I’d imagine the answers back up my statement) and in another highly complementary comparison I was often thinking about how Oliver Stone would have handled a film on the subject and character. Perhaps one investigative conspiracy story, the masterpiece JFK, was enough.
Journalist Gary Webb (Renner) story takes him from Washington to Nicaragua to meet sources and follow the trail up to the top of the US government, but in a change to the usual journalist-on-the-chase tale we’ve seen previously, Webb works for a newspaper which is a far smaller concern than The Washington Post, LA Times or New York Times. Once his story breaks, I really appreciated the time the film gives to internal politics at the paper and how the bigger papers try to crush the story in a bid to turn their missed opportunity into something from nothing. Unlike Woodward and Bernstein or Lowell Bergman, Webb doesn’t have the power to speak the truth as freely as they did (in their aforementioned Hollywood depictions) and the loneliness which comes as a result of being shunned by his profession was felt by me.
The CIA/Conta focus moves away in the film’s second half to become a story focused more on the consequences of Webb’s story and perhaps this is where Kill the Messenger loses some of its appeal in favour of family dramas and something of a flat ending where many of the ramifications in government are somewhat of an afterthought. Think of the end of American Sniper as a reference point.
Nice supporting roles from Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta and Michael Sheen gives the film some added gravitas, but this is Renner’s show and it’s the best he has been since The Hurt Locker – but that’s more to do with the roles he’s taken than the quality of his performances since that 2008 Oscar nomination. Bourne spinoffs, Mission: Impossible secondary characters, the hollow Marvel roles and cheap trash like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunter may pay the bills and some of these are terrific fun (well Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was at least) but Renner has the looks, charisma and general likeability which goes far for a leading man. He must take more roles such as this one to get him away from franchises because on the evidence of Kill the Messenger he still has what it takes.
The film was released in October in the US and it’s funny how a film of this quality was instantly overlooked and ignored for any awards recognition. That’s not to say it ‘deserved’ any, but in comparison to the other ‘based on a true story’ films from 2014, it had equal right to their share and in many cases far more.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter.