Kill the Messenger opens with footage of Richard Nixon talking about the War on Drugs. Then we see footage of Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan pontificating on the same subject, and the clips are intermingled with old newspaper headlines while jittery music plays on the soundtrack. It's an effective but overfamiliar technique (it was even used to open the 2014 remake of Godzilla), and it's the first of many ways in which the film assures us that we're about to watch the sort of movie we've seen many times before. There are scenes of “stop the presses!” jubilation, and scenes of intense debate between a journalist and his direct superiors. There's a tense walk through a parking garage, and there are key witnesses who look over their shoulders. There are big speeches about Important Issues, and there are scenes of conventional domestic drama. You've seen this movie, and you've seen it done better. Even so, it has a power which proves difficult to shake: if you care about good journalism (and I imagine most of you do), the film will make you clench your fists in righteous outrage.
The movie tells the true story of Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner, The Avengers), a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. He's working on a story about the government's seizures of property belonging to drug dealers, but his investigation takes a number of unexpected turns. The story grows larger and more ambitious, eventually leading Webb to the conclusion that the CIA may have collaborated with the drug traffickers responsible for bringing crack cocaine to the streets of major American cities. Webb publishes a three-part story (which he dubs the “Dark Alliance” series), inner city protests erupt across the country (Los Angeles in particular) and Webb basks in a shower of awards and media attention.
Were this a just world, that would be the end of the story. Alas, the story's publication is only the starting point (we know something's up when we see that all of the characters are running victory laps before the one-hour mark has arrived). The CIA is predictably angry about Webb's story and begins quietly working to undermine his efforts. That isn't even a little bit surprising, but Webb's biggest enemies turn out to be his fellow journalists. Newspapers from The Washington Post to The L.A. Times begin experiencing a severe case of professional jealousy, and grow angry that some no-name reporter from a rinky-dink newspaper broke this story before they did. Rather than making a sincere effort to fellow up on Webb's reporting, these rival publications instead dedicate themselves to discrediting Webb. They find holes in his story, skeletons in his closet and sources eager to recant their words.
Kill the Messenger attempts to be two different kinds of movies, and it's hard to shake the feeling that it doesn't quite devote enough time to one of them. The film's first half is an old-fashioned journalism movie; largely a series of cryptic conversations between Webb and his assorted sources. Here, we're treated to a parade of memorable character actors, each one willing to provide Webb with a secret or two: a sensuous drug trafficker's wife played by Paz Vega (Spanglish), a nervous Washington insider played by Michael Sheen (The Queen), a charismatic Nicaraguan criminal played by Andy Garcia (The Godfather Part III), an imprisoned drug kingpin played by Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire), etc. It's an exposition-heavy hour which scurries quickly – too quickly, I'd argue – through a boatload of information. To be fair, the movie is clearly more interested in getting to the events of its second half, but they should have either granted more time to the investigative stuff or cut it considerably (perhaps opening the film with a recap of everything Webb had learned and jumping right into the publication of the story).
The film's second half shifts into paranoia thriller mode, as an innocent man finds himself wrongly accused of all sorts of things (though a few minor-but-legitimate accusations manage to make the fake ones seem convincing enough). Webb does his best to defend himself, but it's hard to come across as anything less than crazy when the media, the government and even your own employers are leveling serious accusations at you. Time has vindicated much of Webb's reporting, but the corrections were too little, too late. The damage had been done, and the assorted organizations responsible could blame the mistakes on former administrations.
Jeremy Renner does strong work here, delivering his most potent performance since The Hurt Locker. He takes what could have been a solid but unmemorable role and turns it into something special, capturing Webb's sharp-eyed zeal in the first half and his bewildered heartbreak in the second. Here's a guy who pours his heart and soul into the work he does, only to see his own profession turn around and stab him in the back. Confusion gives way to fury, which in turn gives way to resignation. The film doesn't skirt around Webb's flaws: he had a penchant for hyperbole, and his roving eye took a toll on his marriage. Even so, he was a fundamentally good reporter who exposed some important truths, and his reward was his own head on a platter.
Little else in the film is quite as good as Renner's work. Too many scenes feel like barely-altered variations on scenes from the films that inspired this one, and the writing has a tendency to turn ham-fisted at times (a dialogue exchange between Webb and his teenage son feels like a clumsy first draft of a potentially good scene). The push-and-pull relationship between Webb and his editor (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is initially compelling, but turns frustratingly hazy later on. Save for a visually absorbing late-night scene featuring a riveting cameo from Ray Liotta (Goodfellas), Michael Cuesta's direction has a polished-but-bland quality that often makes the movie look like an episode of some cable drama. These things prevent the film from reaching its potential, but Kill the Messenger is nonetheless a worthwhile reminder that good journalism matters, and that it's too often delivered at a significant price.
Kill the Messenger
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 2014