Kill the Messenger Dir. Michael Cuesta

[Focus Features; 2014]

Styles: true story, biography, thriller, agitprop
Others: The Battle in Seattle, Homeland, Everybody’s Baby

Look, I get it. When you have an important story to tell, especially something indicative of our own government’s gross corruption and the ramifications of same, it’s better to make that story as straightforward as possible so that more people will want to hear it. That’s fine, in theory: as much as I am personally a sucker for experimental semi-biopics like Walker and WR: The Mystery of the Organism, I know that that won’t play in Peoria. What happens, though, when the heavy hand and dribbling stream of treacle that passes for “mass appeal” only serves to undercut the story’s message?

The answer, unfortunately, is a film like Kill The Messenger, the new film by Michael Cuesta (Homeland). The story of Gary Webb (portrayed here by Jeremy Renner) demands to be told: it’s a distressing tale of a small-time reporter who stumbled into the story of the decade, uncovering how the U.S. government and the Nicaraguan Contra army were complicit (whether by design or reckless indifference) in the crack cocaine epidemic. Webb spilling the beans put him in the CIA’s crosshairs, resulting in threats, surveillance, discrediting, and eventual ruin. It’s a terrifying, infuriating story, but here it’s melodramatic and almost cute.

It didn’t need to be this way, and the film’s cast certainly deserves better. Renner does his best to portray Webb as an honest family man who is as complicated as he is banal, but is made to do so with dialogue that is baldly functional and charmless (not to mention a goatee that is charmless without even being functional, but hey, it does take place in the 1990s). Perfectly competent supporting actors like Oliver Platt and Barry Pepper move the story along, but potential scene-stealers like Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, and Michael Kenneth Williams are forced to languish in stereotypical roles as (respectively) a rogue ex-CIA agent, a Nicaraguan drug smuggler, and a duped crack dealer, each more one-dimensional than the last. A subplot wherein Webb’s marriage is haunted by past infidelities, whether historically accurate or not, is over-dramatized and hackneyed, and seems thrown in just to add dramatic tension.

Plenty of “true story” films are hacked out this way, so picking on Kill the Messenger almost seems unfair (remember The Battle in Seattle?). What’s more unfair, though, is to take a resonant, poignant story and make it into a forgettable trifle. Gary Webb’s story isn’t some human-interest bullshit like the Baby Jessica story; it deserves better than this kind of TV movie treatment (and hell, even the Baby Jessica TV movie had Will OldhamKill The Messenger is starved for even that much personality).

If you don’t know Gary Webb’s story, and life’s hustle/bustle prevents you from reading the book, then Kill the Messenger remains worth watching to suss out the major points of the story (although, with all the documentaries about boozy independent baseball and trepanation out there to watch, it might still be hard to find the time). Still, unless Cuesta and company can blame a government cover-up of their own for this disappointment, they owe Gary Webb’s memory an apology.

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