By Jarrod Jones. Michael Cuesta’s Kill The Messenger, a film about the weapons of journalism wielded by a goateed Jeremy Renner, is a tonally mixed bag of several great ideas. It’s a simmering political procedural that takes place during the plasti-sheen PC world of Clinton’s America, filled with polite people yelling politely in editorial offices. It’s also a meditation on a man whose grip on the truth loosens as forces far more powerful than he manipulate the people and situations that give his truth heft.
Jeremy Renner plays Gary Webb, the infamous muckraker who in 1996 wrote a series of inflammatory articles titled Dark Alliance, a series that alleged CIA involvement in the funneling of cocaine into major U.S. cities throughout the 1980s, cocaine that was directly responsible for the crack-cocaine epidemic that plagued most of the country, particularly the beleaguered city of Los Angeles. And Cuesta’s film, written by Peter Landesman (who wrote 2013’s Parkland), meanders in the murky grey area of judicial bureaucracy and Soderbergian heat long enough to forget that this story is really about a man telling a story, rather than a sinister thriller of the utmost paranoia. It’s a film that wants to be great when it’s merely good, and settles for being okay when it should strive for more.
The story of Webb is a fascinating one, but Cuesta (whose experience directing episodes of Homeland probably landed him this gig) keeps his focus between the dramatic interpretations of Landesman’s screenplay and the reality of Webb’s circumstances divided for far too long. Because of this, Renner’s Webb runs around in circles for the first half of the film, allowing an impossibly seductive gangster moll (Paz Vega) to play Webb (and his quest for “The Truth”) like a big dummy in order to spring her scumbag drug lord boyfriend (Yul Vazquez) from federal custody, while attracting the ire of pensively compromised D.A. Russell Dodson (Barry Pepper). All this sudden attention gives our intrepid reporter the notion that there’s more here than meets the eye.
The problem is, the intrigue stumbles when it becomes apparent that all of these potent characters are tossed aside once they’re used in Cuesta’s carnival of cameos, and that particular gripe doesn’t improve: throughout the film’s svelte 112 minute run time, capable character actors come and go, offering the same superficial distractions that bolstered another Renner vehicle, Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 scorcher, The Hurt Locker. Which is too bad, considering that this time around characters like these would offer more depth than superficial pathos. Hurt Locker gave us faces to relate to amid its carnage. Kill The Messenger simply offers its memorable faces as grist for the mill.
Cuesta’s guiding hand keeps cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s cameras sternly on Renner, whose floppy 90s hair and perplexing goatee have all the hallmarks of a regular fella in an extraordinary situation. Webb’s insistence on sticking up for the little guy means he’s made to order to be the patsy, the fall guy who gets the pointy end of the skewer once the truth is outed: big time outlets who missed out on Webb’s story – like the embarassingly local L.A. Times – are plenty pissed that a purportedly small-time rag like the San Jose Mercury News got the drop on everyone else, and it’s not long before media searchlights begin to question – and even distort – Webb’s altruism.
In its attempts to be topical – a warning shot to Webb, fired by DC shill Michael Sheen, is framed within Capitol Hill – Kill The Messenger takes liberties when it shouldn’t. Whole sequences are left to the viewer to discern whether they actually happened or not (a surreal cameo from Ray Liotta ghosts in and out with little consequence), and Cuesta’s narrative is too busy churning ahead when it should be taking moments to reflect. Familial moments with Webb’s wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Webb’s elder son Ian (Lucas Hedges) work far better than Cuesta’s histrionic newsreel montages (we get it, everyone was worried more about Clinton’s having thangs than black people dying in L.A.), or its ham-handed attempts at suspense (was that a guy in the shadows? what was that man doing to Webb’s car?). Everything about the film feels so damned incidental, whether the events actually occurred or not. And when it’s time to tell a story that needs to be told – like Webb’s undoubtedly is – it doesn’t do to flake on the details.