Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta
Directed by: Michael Cuesta (“Roadie”)
Written by: Peter Landesman (“Parkland”)
As print media continues its slow decline into becoming increasingly more obsolete, it is always fun to see a film tackle the seemingly lost art of the tenacious newspaper reporter out to break a story wide open. In “Kill the Messenger,” it just so happens that the target of this exposé is the United States government.
Based on a true story, “Kill the Messenger” follows San Jose Mercury News investigative journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) and the huge story he uncovers in the mid-90s. After following trails led by the girlfriend of a drug dealer, Webb discovers that the CIA knowingly allowed cocaine into the U.S. and allowed it to be sold in order arm rebels in Nicaragua. Once Webb releases his story, praise is soon met with scrutiny and danger as his career, family and life hang in the balance.
In the lead role, Renner gives his best performance since 2010’s “The Town.” It’s a role that is equal parts aggressive and vulnerable, both of which Renner excels at, elevating the material in the process. While there are good supporting performances from actors like Oliver Platt and Rosemarie DeWitt, “Kill the Messenger” unfortunately doesn’t make much use of his sprawling cast of great actors. Actors like Andy Garcia and Michael Sheen briefly appear and are gone in an instant, failing to make a lasting impact.
For the most part, the true-to-life story in “Kill the Messenger” is very intriguing, though it does tend to ebb and flow more than one might like. Scenes at the beginning of the film where Gary is putting together the initial pieces of the puzzle allow for the tenacious character traits to reveal themselves, setting the table for the rest of the film. These scenes also establish the tone as the film becomes very sharp and even a bit witty, especially in the scenes with a lawyer character played fantastically by Tim Blake Nelson.
As Gary begins to dig deeper into the conspiracy, he sets out on a journey to uncover the truth, which is where the film begins to lose a bit of its luster. These segments feel tenuous and while Renner carries them and character actors shuffle in and out, the scenes and story feel a little slight overall. The momentum is regained, however, and the strongest points of the film happen when Gary is under a smear campaign from competing newspapers. It is here where Renner is able to show his emotional range, from the fear for his life to the frustration of having people question his journalistic integrity. It’s an interesting study of and asks important questions like, “How much power does the government really have?” It’s an issue that is still extremely timely today.
Towards the end of the film and sprinkled throughout, director Michael Cuesta flirts with the larger implications that the CIA and the government heavily contributed to the crack epidemic that began in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. It’s a worthwhile connection of a social issue that ultimately has its impact blunted by a lack of exploration. Though the film may not connect on every level it sets out to, a mostly well-driven narrative and a great performance from Renner make “Kill the Messenger” a story worth telling.