Michael Cuesta’s Kill the Messenger is one of those movies that comes under the heading of Perfectly Fine. It’s well-intended and well-made. It moves at a pretty good pace. It mostly holds the interest. There are a few missteps — not in the least in its distracting “all-star” (or at least “all-name”) casting (“Oh, look, it’s Ray Liotta, etc.”) — but all in all, it’s a good film. It is everything you expect a crusading reporter movie to be — and therein lies the ultimate problem, because it’s also nothing more. If you’re wanting a solid movie of its type, then Kill the Messenger is for you. If you want one that surprises you or does something different, this isn’t it. I went in expecting the film I got. But I was hoping for something more. I can’t exactly fault it for succeeding at efficiently being what it sets out to be, but neither can I work up excessive excitement over it. It’s just too straightforward and slightly history lessonish.
Jeremy Renner stars as Gary Webb, the reporter who discovered that the U.S. was funding Nicaraguan anti-communist militia groups with money gained by being part of a system that brought crack cocaine into the country, especially into the inner cities. According to the film — which is based on Webb’s book Dark Alliance — he came across the story largely by accident while working on an article about the DEA seizing the property of suspected drug dealers. In fact, the basics of the story — through court transcripts he’s not supposed to have access to — are handed to him by a drug trafficker’s girlfriend (Paz Vega). It is this information that sends Webb on his investigation that will lead to the multipart piece in the relatively minor San Jose Mercury News. Not surprisingly, the series makes quite a ripple — not only with the CIA and the powers that be, but with the bigger newspapers that are left looking bad for failing to get this story. At first, Webb is hailed as a great journalist — and then the combined forces of the media and the CIA set out to discredit his work and, for that matter, him.
Roughly half of the film is given over to the investigation and the other half to the systematic destruction of Webb’s credibility and character. (Helpfully, Webb has at least one major skeletal occupant in his closet.) It’s a reasonable division, but the investigation feels a little rushed, a little too easy — and a little too sold on Webb’s integrity. In that last regard, Kill the Messenger is a very old-fashioned film. While it allows for some doubt as to his personal life, the movie doesn’t permit even a hint of ambiguity as concerns his professional integrity. It never allows us a moment’s questioning of the exact truth of the story itself — even though Webb’s sources can hardly be called the most reliable human beings. Instead, it leans heavily on melodramatic threats from the CIA (“We would never hurt your children”) and sobering warnings from a D.C. insider (Michael Sheen) like, “Some stories are too true to tell.” Yes, this stuff works, but it works on an All the President’s Men 101 basis. Apart from his family trouble — mostly grounded in his past — Webb remains a model of journalistic integrity tooling around California in his mid-1970s Triumph TR-6 (he’s stylish and cool).
What the film is after is to demonstrate the corruption of both the CIA and the media. It is, in fact, outraged over this, and it wants to sell us this outrage. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it feels rote and even clichéd. Some parts of the story are strangely inconclusive. What is being attempted with his car, for example? Clearly it’s being tampered with — a bomb? brake lines? — but there’s no follow-through. If the scene is depicted as an attempt on his life, why is it the only such attempt? Other things are rather weak — especially loading the “rest of the story” (which includes, in passing, one of the biggest condemnations of the media) in text at the end of the film. Don’t misunderstand, this is a solid film — made more so by a committed performance by Renner — but it never becomes the great one it might have been. Rated R for language and drug content.