Mark Reviews Movies

Kill the Messenger


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Michael Cuesta

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Lucas Hedges, Michael Sheen, Barry Pepper, Tim Blake Nelson, Andy Garcia, Paz Vega, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ray Liotta, Robert Patrick

MPAA Rating: R (for language and drug content)

Running Time: 1:52

Release Date: 10/10/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 10, 2014

Not surprisingly, Kill the Messenger possesses the mindset of an investigative journalist. That approach serves the first half of the movie well. During this section, the movie follows along with its protagonist's research into government involvement in the drug trade. He and the movie move from point A through one pass of the alphabet to about point CC, connecting the dots as they go.

The details that arise are fascinating and infuriating—so much so that they even overcome the dry and straightforward technique director Michael Cuesta and screenwriter Peter Landesman implement to disseminate them. After a showy introduction that uses archival footage and sound bites against a rousing score to juxtapose the rise of the War on Drugs and the Reagan administration's support for the Nicaraguan Contras, the filmmaking slows down considerably.

It's a point-by-point progression with little consideration for who the characters involved are but plenty of attention to what they have done and how they fit into the puzzle. These character are here solely to give or receive information, and considering what they have to say, we're not too concerned about them as anything more than that.

The man doing the hunting for information is Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. After writing about the forfeiture of alleged drug criminals assets, Gary hears from Coral (Paz Vega), whose boyfriend is currently facing a similar problem.

From there, Gary follows the path of proof from Russell Dodson (Barry Pepper), a federal prosecutor whose evidence is often kept secret due to matters of national security, to a government informant to a crack dealer in South Central Los Angeles. This leads to Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia), a drug kingpin in a Nicaraguan prison who name-drops Oliver North (Who else would it be?), and he leads Gary to an airfield in the Central American country where planes would regularly fly drugs into cities throughout the United States.

The kicker, it turns out, is that the CIA under the Reagan administration was involved in all of this. Essentially, when you hear someone say that the government was responsible for putting crack in the inner cities, it comes from a slight misunderstanding of these corrupt dealings. His editor (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is supportive of Gary chasing the leads, while the paper's executive editor (Oliver Platt) worries that their local paper isn't prepared to handle the workload. The CIA even invites Gary to a non-descript building to threaten him by saying they would never threaten him.

That's the gist of the first half of the movie, and it makes its point directly and with few diversions from the course. The second half has an entirely different, far more subjective aim but oddly retains the same sort of detached approach.

This is the fallout about which Fred Weil (Michael Sheen), an off-the-record contact within the government, warns him at one point. We'd write it off as paranoia, but the car with tinted windows and containing men in suits that sits outside Gary's house has us thinking otherwise.

We suspect such things are coming, but Landesman's screenplay (based on Webb's book Dark Alliance and another by Nick Schou that shares a name with the movie) is far more intriguing when it finds itself inside the conference rooms of the bigger, national newspapers. Fueled by professional jealousy that no one on their staff could do what Gary has done or a desire to protect the government sources they depend on for news, the rival papers begin a campaign to discredit not only Gary's story but also the man himself. The sinister suggestion here is obvious: Who needs shadowy government agents to intimidate someone who's disclosing dirty secrets when there's an entire news media that, without any coercion, will do it for them?

The bulk of what movie's second half is dissecting, though, is the disintegration of Gary's personal life and his professional one. An old mistake comes back to tear apart his otherwise supportive family. He's tossed into a different branch of the paper in an area where the stories barely qualify as news and has to live in a motel room away from his wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt) and children. Renner, who spends the first half of the movie as a pawn of the character's search, does serviceable work in this section, but the screenplay still maintains its investigative mindset, meaning that character is still a pawn but one of forces seeking or aiding his destruction.

What's missing is some expression of the emotional and psychological toll on Gary beyond the basic acknowledgement that these events are affecting him (The most notable exception is during the movie's penultimate scene, in which we see how he imagines what a professional victory should look like only to be confronted with harsh reality). We're not identifying with a human being facing trying circumstances. Instead, we're watching a symbol of journalistic integrity become one of systematic suppression (The big speech at the end solidifies it). We can understand why Kill the Messenger simply goes through the motions of this story when it's about the bigger picture, but when the movie's focus narrows to one man's personal experience, it's frustrating that the movie continues on that path.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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