Since its inception 40 years ago, the War on Drugs has been controversial, and even today it inspires debate over its efficacy, cost and character. This context partially frames director Michael Cuesta’s new film Kill the Messenger, adapted from the 1998 book Dark Alliance by late journalist Gary Webb. In Webb’s book – based off a 1996 expose he wrote for the San Jose Mercury News – there is an assertion put forth regarding CIA complicity with Nicaraguan cocaine smuggling. At the time, Webb posited that the CIA’s motivation revolved around an issue of money, with the smuggling providing funding for the Nicaraguan Contra Rebels. As in the book, Cuesta’s film devotes significant time to exploring the media’s reaction to Webb’s assertions, and the effects his work had on his personal life.
Shot in an energetic if somewhat utilitarian fashion, Kill the Messenger harbors lofty aspirations. Functioning as a biopic, a conspiracy thriller and a piece of activist cinema, the film is clearly intent on carrying the fire of movies like All the Presidents Men (1976), The China Syndrome (1979) and Zodiac (2006), which also recounted the highs and lows of investigatory journalism.
Yet, unlike those spiritual predecessors, which offered profound examinations of specific times and places, Kill the Messenger’s story feels somewhat prosaic. Even worse is its small scope. The film may explore the epic connection between the 1980s crack epidemic with US foreign policy, but it also spends an inordinate amount of time on the personal life of Gary Webb. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if Kill the Messenger had found a way to subvert the general paradigm of this genre. Gary Webb’s discovery of government malfeasance may have been groundbreaking, but the details of how this affected his personal life are pedestrian.
Thankfully, an extraordinary actor occupies the lead role. After exploding into the national spotlight with 2009’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner has established himself as one of the most talented working actors. He creates an absorbing interpretation of Gary Webb’s character. With a scruffy mustache and beard, and a hairstyle that evokes shadows of 90s era Jerry Seinfeld, Renner provides a convincing physicality for the role. Yet, it’s his evocation of Webb’s fierce ethics and anti-authoritarianism which resonates most powerfully. These attributes lead to confrontations with other major characters, including his wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt), his editor Anna (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and his paper’s publisher Jerry (Oliver Platt).
The supporting cast (which also includes Ray Liotta, Michael Sheen and Andy Garcia) are more than up to the task of playing off Renner’s considerable intensity. There are several scenes which feature charged, emotional exchanges, highlighting both the talent of the cast and Cuestra’s skill with camerawork and color. One scene, which involves Liotta’s character John Cullen and Renner’s Webb, is lit with a evocative mixture of grays and amber yellows, imbuing the scene with a meta-physical vibe. Additionally, after Webb releases his initial story and becomes the focus of a smear campaign, DP Sean Bobbit makes strong use of long-shots and claustrophobic compositions, suggesting the character’s gradually increasing marginalization.
But while the interplay between the sprawling supporting cast and the film’s lead is for the most part effective, it grinds to a halt during scenes depicting Webb’s home life. The film dwells on the corrosive effects of Webb’s profession in an unsubstantiated and overly familiar way. Rosemarie Dewitt’s Sue is mainly at fault for this effect. She appears to have a rather tense, acrimonious relationship to Webb’s reporting work, and is given little to do aside from fret or fawn. This is an insult to an actress of DeWitt’s caliber, and makes the film feel a bit desperate, as if it’s looking for trouble. Nothing in the film suggests that Webb wasn’t able to successfully compartmentalize his professional and personal life. In fact, the film even aesthetically suggests this, with the camerawork oscillating between hand-held shots when Webb is in the field, to stable compositions when he’s out of it.
This feeling of desperateness permeates Kill the Messenger. It’s exemplified in overly dramatic shots of Webb careening down the road on his motorcycle, or Cuestra’s chronic shifting between scenes of bombastic noise and muted sound. Ultimately, much of this comes off as smoke and mirrors. It feels like a ploy to ratchet up emotion that the film may not have genuinely earned, or maybe even to distract us from a conspiracy story that frankly by 2014 – an era where governmental scandals are axiomatic – doesn’t really shock us. Thus, perhaps Michael Sheen’s character says it most succinctly when he remarks to Webb that: “Other journalists have been down this rabbit hole before.” The sad part is that we have already been down it too.