Director: Michael Cuesta
Actors: Jeremy Renner, Robert Patrick, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Sheen
Writers: Peter Landesman, Gary Webb, Nick Schou
Runtime: 112 min
Conspiracy theories abound in real life and in film. When these theories turn out to be true, strong foundations of belief can be shaken to their very cores as the public begins to doubt whom they can trust and whom they can believe. The idea that the American government could be supporting cocaine importation may seem ludicrous to some, yet that is the truth that audiences are asked to face in director Michael Cuesta’s new film Kill the Messenger (2014). Equal parts intriguing political thriller and emotional family drama, this work benefits from a shocking true story and a powerful lead performance.
Kill the Messenger tells the story of Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a journalist who finds his reputation threatened and eventually destroyed after he exposes the role of the CIA in importing large quantities of cocaine from Nicaragua to California. When Webb stumbles upon a story involving a local drug dealer, he begins to investigate further, and eventually realizes that he has uncovered a scandal with exceptionally far reaching implications. Webb decides to publish his incendiary findings anyway, however; a brave and bold move that puts more than just his career at stake. The film is based upon the book of the same name by Nick Schou, as well as the actual book Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion by the late, real-life Gary Webb himself.
This film is made accessible through the work of likable actor Renner, who plays Webb as an eager and curious reporter who is also a family man at heart. Although he works hard and takes great risks, Webb is not a superhero, and it is his everyman persona with which it is easy to relate. The film benefits from the time director Cuesta takes to show Webb not only at work, but at home, as well. As Webb eventually begins to uncover the shocking scandal, the audience is able to feel the intrigue right along with him. A character who did not work as well was Webb’s initial informant Coral, the flirtatious girlfriend of an accused drug trafficker (Paz Vega), whose over-the-top portrayal comes of as a bit of a caricature when compared to Renner’s subtlety.
Kill the Messenger makes use of historic news footage that adds weight and realism to this tragically true tale. The bluesy rock score of the film sets an effective mood, and sounds like the kind of music Webb himself might have listened to. Although this film may not be an action movie, it still manages to generate tension and suspense, as one comes to genuinely care about Webb and feel concern for his well-being and that of his loved ones. The film does lose a bit of steam after the investigation concludes, but it sustains its tension through to the end due to the careful attention paid to Webb’s family early on.
It is the strength of Gary Webb’s character and the relatability of Jeremy Renner’s performance that makes Kill the Messenger a successful film. Choosing to portray this individual as an everyday, family-oriented individual caught up in something much larger than expected creates a bond between character and audience, as they are able to imagine how they would react in a similar situation. Webb makes the decision to do the right thing, regardless of the cost, a choice one cannot help but admire. Appropriately, director Cuesta faced his own decision when crafting the conclusion of his film, and chose to reveal the finale of his story through on-screen text as opposed to an acted-out scene. The resulting conclusion may not be as dramatic, but it is certainly respectful, and no less powerful.