It’s difficult watching a “true story” movie as a viewer who is relatively uninformed as to the actual basis of the film. Not knowing how many things are created for dramatic effect, being unaware of the context in which events unfolded, and wondering about truth versus bias leaves you with several questions, but it also better allows you to judge the movie on its own credentials. I was only vaguely aware of the story underlying Michael Cuesta’s Kill the Messenger, but it made me want to delve into the source material (Nick Schou’s book Kill the Messenger and Gary Webb’s book Dark Alliance)– high praise for any fictional work based on a piece of non-fiction.
Back in the mid-1990s, crusading San Jose Mercury News investigative journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner, at his disheveled best) discovered that the CIA imported cocaine into the United States and used the profits to fund the rebel army in Nicaragua. Centered solely around this aspect of Webb’s life, Kill The Messenger covers the investigation that went into writing the story and the horrific aftermath that happens to him personally and professionally because of his refusal to let it go. While this is primarily Renner’s show, he’s bolstered by a remarkable supporting cast led by Rosemary DeWitt (one of Hollywood’s most underrated utility players) as his wife and featuring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt as co-workers. Michael Sheen, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, and Michael Kenneth Williams also appear in small roles.
Director Cuesta is no stranger to either character dramas (his first film was 2001’s L.I.E.) or CIA shenanigans (he’s directed eight episodes of Homeland), and he uses both strains to inform this story to smart effect. After a more procedural first half that details the investigation and writing of the story plus the acclaim/fame Webb got from its publication, the second half becomes a character drama/thriller showing how the fallout nearly destroys Webb’s life. It’s an interesting approach, and mostly successful once you accept the change of pace. Although some of the familial strife might appear a bit forced (again, I don’t know how much is real and how much is fake), the movie doesn’t lose focus of what it wants to accomplish.
Part of the strength of the second half is that while Cuesta could have gone down an intricate conspiracy route a la Three Days of the Condor, the film takes the arguably more interesting, almost Orwellian angle that the CIA basically only needs to give the slightest push to achieve its aims. While some mysterious black-suited gentlemen do questionable things and CIA officials predictably deny the story to other newspapers, it’s really Webb’s fellow journalists that end up being his downfall. As an informant says after the story breaks, eventually Webb will become the story, and that’s precisely what happens. Exposing the CIA’s illicit actions becomes less important to prestigious journalists than disgracing Webb. Overall irrelevant facts about his past, mistakes he might have made in his personal life, and having to defend himself against things he never even said ends up overwhelming the more important story, one that affected countless lives.
The film also wisely posits that this wholesale attack on Webb’s credibility has more to do with professional jealousy than something truly hidden or nefarious. Major papers (such as the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post in this film) seem more shocked and annoyed that the podunk San Jose Mercury News broke a story of international importance than they are indignant over the content of the articles.
Notably, having people turn against Webb because of personal/professional jealousy comes across as more realistic and therefore frightening than people acting this way out of fear of reprisals or the sense that they are all part of some massive conspiracy. It also enhances the paranoid thriller aspect of the second half of the film. Wondering who is the sleeper agent playing the puppet master can be entertaining, but it’s more human and affecting to watch Webb become increasingly more isolated as his friends abandon him without a mortal threat hanging over their head, and his family draws increasingly closer to the precipice of collapse over the stress. Cuesta successfully drives home the sense of hopelessness that is the mark of any great conspiracy film.
As with real life, Kill The Messenger ends on a bittersweet note, heavy on the bitter. Webb ends up vindicated years after the fact, but the damage is already done, and Webb ends up killing himself about a decade after the events of the film. Although it’s clear that Cuesta wants to turn Webb into some form of tragic hero – a martyr, arguably – whose dedication towards truth above all will inspire the audience to do something noble, he doesn’t quite pull off the emotional connection necessary for this to happen. Instead, Webb comes across as an average man who, through fate and happenstance, found himself ridiculously lucky one day and trapped in an unwinnable situation beyond his control the next. Thankfully, this is the more interesting and (presumably) honest approach.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
While Kill The Messenger is unable to be the emotional call to action it aspires to be, it’s nonetheless a remarkable character drama with solid performances and something to say that’s worth saying. As with All the Presidents Men and Good Night, and Good Luck before it, Kill The Messenger belongs in the pantheon of truth-in-journalism movies worth remembering.