With the fall comes an abundance of gritty thrillers and earnest docudramas that will compete for our movie-going money and/or for Oscar acclaim. Kill The Messenger falls into both categories, unfurling the disturbing, true story of journalist Gary Webb with a heavy helping of suspense. Though packed with stars like Jeremy Renner (who also produces), Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Rosemarie DeWitt and Barry Pepper, this political thriller isn't exactly a commercial endeavor. But its shocking story should be required viewing, whatever you're political leanings.
Jeremy Renner stars as Gary Webb, an intense but schlubby reporter who works for the San Jose Mercury News. There, he ran a three-part article series called "Dark Alliance," which reported the Central Intelligence Agency had been engaging in shady dealings with Nicaraguan drug lords, essentially allowing massive amounts of cocaine into the United States. The whys of this alliance were complicated, and soon Webb lost control of the story as it spun out into scrutiny of loftier newsrooms and television news programs. With the CIA and bigger news outlets smarting because of one newsman with a ratty messenger bag, a target was placed on Webb. Soon, he became the story; his own life and mistakes--personal and professional--stealing focus from the shameful government operation he had uncovered.
Director Michael Cuesta (TV's Homeland) carefully lays out the film's trickier plot points, but never in a way that seems didactic or nakedly expositional. We're bound to Webb on his journey, learning shocking new details as he does. Not only does this ground the stakes of his story, but also it roots us in its tension. Cinematography that alternately stalks and suffocates Webb revs up the suspense to a fevered pitch. Cuesta expertly drives the first two acts, giving this smart thriller a brisk pace and exhilarating propulsion. But forced to play close to the real events of the story, the film's confident stride breaks to a stumble in its final act.
After Webb has again and again been warned and threatened, Kill The Messenger's resolution becomes a barrage of loss and embarrassment for our gruff but noble hero. It can be a clunky thing to deftly detail how someone's life falls to pieces over a series of years. Screenwriter Peter Landesman does a decent job, having laid the groundwork of Webb's troubled marriage and his uncompromising nature throughout the film's first act. Yet after the thrilling thrust of the film's beginning and middle, its end runs out of steam to a final sequence that feels forced. Still, it gives Webb some dignity in his final onscreen moments, and that I admire.
Jeremy Renner is electrifying as Webb. He shrugs off the sardonic charms he's made famous as Hawkeye, and wallows in barely repressed outrage for much of Kill The Messenger's runtime. Much like he was in The Hurt Locker, Renner is playing a cowboy variant, someone who fights for society, while being an outsider. Though a family man and a seeker of truth, Webb is not an out-and-out good guy. But Kill The Messenger dares us to not be distracted by his faults, while not daring to hide them. What you think of the man--the film suggests--is secondary to what you make of his story.
This marks Renner's first producing effort, and it seems he's made a shrewd move picking a script that plays well to his entrancing intensity. He also brought together an incredible cast that's full of strong performers. Rosemarie DeWitt gives some welcomed depth to his onscreen wife, a role that could have come off as purely stereotypical nag in the hands of a lesser actress. Lucas Hedges, who recently impressed in The Zero Theorem, steals a scene as Gary's heartbroken eldest son. Paz Vega adds danger and sex appeal as a flirtatious informant. Michael Sheen brings a hangdog longing to the role of a wary politician. Ray Liotta pops up for a small but riveting turn where he's barely lit, yet mesmerizing. Really, every part of this sprawling cast is worthy of praise, nailing the drama's steely tone and resolve.
All in all, this is the kind of movie you hope actors will make when they delve into producing. Kill The Messenger is breathtakingly tense, yet risky in that it aims to be more than entertaining. Pulling from Nick Schou non-fiction recounting of what befell Gary Webb, Kill The Messenger delivers a searing criticism of contemporary America's tendency to miss the most important elements of a story. It's not a message many will welcome. But with strategic cinematography, a solid script, and a cast that doesn't miss a step, the medicine of this drama has plenty of good stuff to help it go down smooth.