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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Kill the Messenger Review: Gritty, Gutsy Thriller Gets Its Hands Dirty

Kill the Messenger largely succeeds at opening old conspiracy wounds.
When is the truth too big to tell? 9/11 conspiracies dominated conversation afterwards, but recent history has been littered with one story of government betrayal after another. In Kill the Messenger, we see what was perhaps the first story to go viral, leading its writer to suffer greatly under its torrid but largely unsubstantiated revelations. The film largely succeeds, potentially paving its way to an Oscar invite in February, even if it's a bit short on specifics.

San Jose Mercury News writer Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is writing stories about government seizures of drug homes in the 1990's, when a much bigger fish presents itself on his hook: for years, the American government has been pumping drugs into ghetto inner-city neighborhoods to fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels against Communism. Webb can't help himself: a purveyor of the truth, he soon descends into a rabbit hole of continental excursions, third-world prisons, and murderous adversaries that neither care about him or his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and children. Once the three-part story Dark Alliance receives the blessings of his bosses (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Olver Platt), Webb will experience an incredible phenomenon: a coordinated effort by both the press (who missed the story) and the CIA to discredit him. The result will not only threaten his job, but put his life in immutable danger.

This isn't so much the story of the deception itself - you can find the 400-page report in which the CIA admits to selling drugs to pay for the rebels - but more about the personal cost of sticking your neck out. By the time the obligatory 'what happened to whom' scrawl appears at the end, we're drained and beaten down, as if the entire exercise exacted nearly the same toll it did with Webb. I think that was Director Michael Cuesta's intention, and if so he executes it with fair mastery. Cuesta cut his teeth on Homeland and Dexter, and while those are excellent examples of dramatic television, he does let a bit of that blood run into the heart of Messenger. Glossing over much of the Contra affair, we learn instead about Webb's difficult relationship with his wife, the community of vultures known as The Press Corp, and the CIA smear campaign that saw him lose everything. Whether audiences will identify with Webb's struggles or see them as saintly worship by Cuesta is anyone's guess, but I found the human story to be more interesting than the documentary that others might have expected. I can get that stuff anywhere - I can't get Renner aspiring to Oscar heights and largely succeeding.

Renner can inhabit any role with perfect assiduousness, and as Gary Webb we see Renner continuing to improve his craft. Webb is as tragic a figure as can be imagined, a born troublemaker who incorrectly assumes that journalism was a safe outlet for his energies. As his professional protectors abandon him, we see Renner instill in Webb a growing gloomy cloud, his head bent further down with every scene. When he's transferred to the Cupertino station we feel saddened; when he loses his marriage and eventually his life, we want to strangle someone. Renner makes a strong case for Webb, a move that his family I'm sure will approve.

Around him is a parade of cameos that will beat anything that The Marvel Cinematic Universe can dish out. Andy Garcia (as gentlemen heavyweight Norwin Menesese), Michael Sheen (as a slimy government insider), and Michael B. Williams (as an LA drug dealer about to get the shaft) are just a few. I'll leave the final one for you to enjoy. Essentially, these cameos amount to single scene roles, building on the story and accelerating Webb's unforseen downward spiral. DeWitt is content to share Renner's scene without demanding to be in its center; and Winstead delivers as Webb's editor. Everyone is given their moment to shine, and each seems to make the most of it. News of Webb's 'suicide' just two years after the story's release will drive some to research the story itself, which I guess is the whole point.

News of this kind is sometimes too big to share, and considering the backlash that citizens of Los Angeles residents shared in the authentic video town hall meetings, it seems that someone did in fact listen. I hope Webb would have been proud of the response, as Cuesta paints analog colors, light noise, and enough 1990's grain to make bread. While the question of its accuracy is already being debated, its Oscar worthiness should not.

Kill the Messenger fills us with a dread that's all too familiar: the price good people pay for uncovering the truth. Renner is Oscar solid, and several 'cameos' up the stakes and tension at just the right times. But like so much these days, its backstory isn't nearly as deep as I would like, leaving me to want more. Perhaps that's the point, and in this way it succeeds at dragging us down the hole with no way out but finding the truth. It appears this was Webb's greatest gift and specter, opening a Pandora's box that has yet to be closed.

Kill the Messenger is Rated R for language and drug content and has a runtime of 112 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


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