Overview: A reporter covers one of the biggest stories a local newspaper has ever encountered. Focus Features; 2014; Rated R; 152 minutes.
Take it Back: I have my reservations about movies taking place in the ’80s and ’90s, particularly ones based on a true story. A movie can easily have almost every signifier sharply on point: the wardrobe, the technology, the parlance, the furniture, gaining credit for a period piece with an easily replicated yesterday environment. Most short-term throwback films provide the attentiveness to these elements, and why wouldn’t they? We’re still holding all these relics in garages and closets. Director Michael Cuesta has offered what these other examples do not: visual unclarity. Kill the Messenger is shot in a slight haze, embracing graininess, reminiscent (with unpolished nostalgia) and indicative of the 1990s film technique. There are a few moments when it seems so familiar. By sacrificing high definition in favor of integrity to the time period, Cuesta is able to provide a sense of authenticity, a feat that has proven to be the unknown Achilles’ Heel of other directors, evident now only in comparison.
Gary Webb: Jeremy Renner’s performance as the award-winning, dedicated reporter Gary Webb is explosive. As the movie develops to reveal Webb’s investigative efforts in the CIA’s connection to drug trafficking, Renner reflexively delivers, offering insight to the edges of infatuation. Renner is exploring the extent of his capabilities with this role, as a professional journalist, a husband and father, a man battling his inner disturbances, an advocate for the voice of truth. If the goal of this movie was to strike some sort of interest for viewers in Gary Webb and media coverage, Cuesta and Renner have exceeded the goal.
All the Attention, in all the Wrong Places: With those two aforementioned successful elements, it should have been easy for me to love this movie, but instead, I was lulled to near sleep. Kill the Messenger is intent to be described as a “thriller,” and, given the subject matter, I should have been thrilled out of my near-nap. I understand how Webb’s perspective is pertinent in the delivery of the story, but I think it would have been more illustrative to come at it from all angles, not just the ballsy reporter. More attention could have been paid to the U.S. government allegedly being aware drug trafficking or to Webb’s minor shortfalls in fact-checking. Or perhaps we could be offered more insight into Webb’s character as a person and not a narrative tool. I would have liked to have seen more on the competitor newspapers and the editors of the San Jose Mercury-News, anything other than the film’s dull and narrow focus.
Final Thoughts: Although Kill the Messenger justly warns and encourages us to question what we consume from the media, I fear the message of this movie will die. Gary Webb’s story would be better suited as a multi-part mini-series, one that allows thorough investigation of the comprehensive and complex layers of these events.