Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Kill the Messenger aims to take a look at investigative journalism and how government corruption and seedy underpinnings can dismantle a man’s professional and personal life. But despite an admittedly committed performance from Jeremy Renner in a relatively thankless role, the film never develops a sense of urgency around its “based on a true story” narrative. Focusing on real-life whistleblower Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a journalist for the San Jose Mercury News, the story explores the exposure of CIA involvement in the Nicaraguan civil war, particularly as United States-backed weapons were supplied to the Contras through money raised by drug sales. It’s a dark, horrifying underbelly of our nation’s government that the film badly wants to expose in a new light, and it uses intermittently effective scenes in the opening moments to elaborate on the tension between professional journalism and cooperative ignorance. But the hackneyed, painfully melodramatic family subplot that becomes the film’s focal point in the second half undermines the brisk, rapid-fire, politically charged film that could have been.
Gary Webb is a journalist that has dealt with some past struggles in his work. An affair has caused a tumultuous relationship with his wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt), along with his recently turned 16-year old son Ian (Lucas Hedges). Their family life is far from perfect, creating an even harsher dichotomy once Gary receives information from Coral (Paz Vega), a femme fatale type that involved herself with drugs and realized that there was more to her husband’s arrest than simple dealing. He was involved in a drug trade that included the government. The introduction of her character essentially allows the film to funnel exposition through her red lipstick-stained lips, with Coral exuding sexuality and basically acting as a noir-type before the film switches genres when necessary. The story then moves to political thriller as Russell Dodson (Barry Pepper) enters the picture, attempting to steer Gary away from the difficult scenario that awaits him. Gary travels around the country and even heads to Nicaragua to track down the exact origin of his claims and get the support he needs to publish his story.
In that moment, Gary becomes the biggest journalist in the country after exposing the government and all of its flawed actions. He broke the year’s biggest story, or at least it seems that way. His story begins to fall apart once sources rescind their statements and the government wipes clean everything that points to the truth. There’s a certain harshness to the central narrative driving the film, so it would be fitting for the characters to have urgency and immediacy in their actions and statements. So it’s peculiar then, that outside of one scene involving Gary’s editor, Anna (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), struggling to decide on how to post a particular article, the film doesn’t move at a break-neck speed. The pacing forces the film to dismantle itself at the seams and focus on the family drama that undermines the central story: Webb’s discovery and its aftermath. By making his character such a bland, mostly emotionless enigma with his family and an impassioned, vocal journalist, it creates an off-putting, mixed signal about his personality. Renner’s performance is subtle only in sparse scenes and mostly asks him for large outbursts when the role requires more nuance than that.
The cast is superb and should stand as one of the most well-rounded ensembles of the year: Ray Liotta, Michael Sheen, Andy Garcia, Michael Kenneth Williams, Oliver Platt, Tim Blake Nelson, and more join the others listed above in a star-driven, women-less ensemble. The three females in the film are weak, submissive, and pushed aside by a narrative that doesn’t care about their individualism but rather their importance to Webb’s presence: Winstead’s character only counters Webb to prove that he is right, DeWitt’s character declares her hopeless love for him when he’s clearly a reprehensible man, and Vega acts as a sex object that’s given exposition because the narrative can’t find another way to deliver subtle storytelling. I attended the film with a friend who said that the film is “5% really good, 5% mind-numbingly terrible, and 90% milquetoast.” That’s an apt description for Kill the Messenger, a film with a solid journalistic conscience that wastes its premise on derivative characterizations and simplified, monotonous developments.
Grade: ★★ (out of 5)