Director: Michael Cuesta
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: March 6th
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The story of Gary Webb, a San Jose Mercury investigative journalist, was an interesting sideshow to the War on Drugs that raged through America from the Nixon administration to present day, where it has been declared a failure. Webb released a series called Dark Alliance that implicated Central Intelligence Agency involvement in the selling of crack cocaine through Nicaraguan Contras, a drug that ravaged poor, pre-dominantly black communities from the mid 80s. Webb’s story drew massive media attention, and with that scrutiny, as his lack of a CIA member on the record left him tarnished and discredited by major publications.
Kill the Messenger tells Webb’s story, from his discovery of CIA and crack cocaine links to the inevitable media witch-hunt led against him. The depiction is a strange one, he makes a rather complicated hero if that’s what we’re to believe he is. He acts more like a rockstar than a journalist; he drives a sportcar AND a motorbike, wears Aviator shades, cranks The Clash while he’s firing off stories and sports a Tony Stark goatee. He’s also a philanderer and and prone to huge swaths of hyperbole in his work. It’s to Jeremy Renner’s immense credit that he grounds him moderately well, he makes him a loving if quite irresponsible — getting your 16-year-old kid a motorbike — father and flawed, but loving husband.
Director Michael Cuesta, an old hand of spy craft through his stewardship of Homeland episodes, has all the right flourishes for evoking the 90s; the whir of dial-tones, the GeoCities style websites, CRT monitors and murderers row of that guy cameos — Robert Patrick, Barry Pepper, Ray Liotta, Oliver Platt and Andy Garcia. It gives credibility to the world but falls where Homeland so often does, a hard-to-like lead who’s not all that good at their job. Webb’s one man war is supported by the two women in his life, his editor, an impressive and immersed Mary Elizabeth Winstead who acts almost as a second wife, and his actual wife, a hamstrung Rosemarie DeWitt, is relegated to knowing frown duty.
Where it suffers is that Webb’s story is ultimately not that engaging — when a post-script points to at least two far more interesting jump-offs for a story, you’re in trouble. As a journalist, Webb doesn’t have you engaged with the obsessiveness of say a Robert Graysmith in Zodiac. His research is a little flimsy, initiated by a lead that appealed to his pants and not his head, and his penchant for nut graphs — “Thousands of young black men are serving long prison sentences for selling cocaine… a drug that was virtually unobtainable in black neighbourhoods before members of the CIA’s army started bringing it into South-Central” — is problematic. There’s no doubt tragedy to Webb’s story but Kill the Messenger‘s biggest issue is that it eulogises, acts almost as a celebration when it should really be a cautionary tale.