‘Kill the Messenger’
Director: Michael Cuesta
Stars: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt
3 (out of 5) Globes
Much like the stories its subject, Gary Webb, wrote, there’s something about “Kill the Messenger” that smells of at least some bull. That’s not to say the film is not right, nor that Webb wasn’t right. In fact, history has vindicated the investigative journalist, proven his tall tales as true. That a movie — starring Jeremy Renner, who shepherded it into existence using his many franchises — exists at all is proof that time has changed and he won — sort of.
In the ’90s, Webb wrote a series of articles — amazingly out of the little San Jose Mercury News — that dug deep into connection between the CIA and the crack-cocaine epidemic that sprouted up in places like South Central L.A. Though initially met with praise, he was soon hounded by both the government and bigger news organizations, who couldn’t verify some of his taller claims. He was disgraced and pushed out of the business; he committed suicide in 2004, not long after his revelations were proven correct.
Webb can be seen as a saint — a martyr to the altar of truth. This is how “Kill the Messenger,” more or less, sees him. He can also be seen as a sloppy journalist, who didn’t adequately submit proof about his reportage; who didn’t lock down quotes so that those who said them wouldn’t deny them later; who sometimes let himself get so worked up that he made claims he couldn’t rigorously support. You can find such criticisms from many fellow journalists, even the ones who respect him. You can also glean them from “Kill the Messenger,” which is such a valentine to the man that it has to be, to some extreme, wrong.
It is gripping, done in the throwback style of ’70s paranoia thrillers, where noble men and women go up against a heartless institution. The baddies are hissable, or worse, faceless; the goodies have their problems but are generally in the right and made to be victims. Webb fits this nicely: As played by Renner, he’s swaggering and driven, cool with the wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and the kids, and a rock star on the job. He speeds around in a convertible, and can’t for his teenage son (Lucas Hedges) to turn 16, so they can jet around on motorcycles.
The first half follows Webb as he uncovers the tale that will destroy his life and save untold others. The second watches his life slowly destroyed, with Webb gradually abandoned by all — by those he thought he got on the record, by the newspaper heads that once goaded him on, by his family, until there’s nothing left to do but deliver a bitter, angry speech to those who destroyed him.
Director Michael Cuesta, who went from a Todd Solondz wannabe (as in the pederast saga “L.I.E.”) to an accomplished TV director (of “Dexter” and “Homeland”), has the patience to lay out the first half, which does play like television. The second finds him going for a meager version of “The Insider.” Soon expressionistic lighting and tight, claustrophobic frames take over, depicting the world caving in on the last decent man.
It’s impressive but shallow, though the film does sometimes try for nuance. You’re supposed to tsk-tsk at Webb’s spineless publisher, played by Oliver Platt, but Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as his editor, is shown trying her best to stand up for Webb, even if she knows she doesn’t have the gumption to go far enough. Webb too is depicted as at least slightly nuts: Someone so devoted and earnest — blasting The Clash’s “Know Your Rights” as he pounds out a story — that he’s willing to sacrifice himself and his family’s happiness to enact real change. It’s the Gary Webb movie that Gary Webb would have wanted, for better and for worse.
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