The Austin Chronicle

Kill the Messenger

Rated R, 112 min. Directed by Michael Cuesta. Starring Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lucas Hedges, Michael K. Williams, Tim Blake Nelson, Paz Vega, Michael Sheen, Oliver Platt, Andy Garcia, Yul Vazquez, Dan Futterman, Richard Schiff, Ray Liotta.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 10, 2014

A crusading-journalist story that never quite jells in either tone or tension, Kill the Messenger recounts the downfall of real-life San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb (Renner). Already a Pulitzer Prize-winner, Webb scooped every major media outlet in 1996 – pre-ubiquitous Internet, which meant The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post, not to mention all three major television networks – by uncovering what he assumed might be the biggest story of his career. What Webb discovered, via dogged, shoe-leather reportage, was that the CIA had helped the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras smuggle tons of cocaine into America during the Reagan era. At the time, the Iran-Contra scandal was already a decade old, but Webb’s muckraking idealism and perhaps a certain amount of naïveté led him to dig deeper and push harder, leading to unforeseen results for himself and his family.

Renner nails the portrait of this quixotic journo, painting him as a ceaseless pursuer of the ugly truth who runs smack up against an even more loathsome truth – namely, you can’t fight city hall, and if you do, be prepared for withering blowback. Whether he’s interviewing drug kingpins lolling in Mexican jails or badgering the U.S. government about what really went down a decade prior, Webb remains a sympathetic protagonist. But the meat and potatoes of Kill the Messenger is less about the actual news story, which has since been independently verified by multiple news outlets, than it is a cautionary tale about the failing powers of the press post-All the President’s Men. I’ll skip the spoilers, but in this age of Anonymous, WikiLeaks, and Edward Snowden, they’re frankly not that surprising, which is precisely what’s problematic about Kill the Messenger: Given the current zeitgeist, audiences are unlikely to be shocked by the viciousness of both the press and the U.S. government. That’s simply the new normal.

Supporting roles by Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as Webb’s editors at the Mercury News, are well-drawn, and Liotta’s cameo as an ex-spook who cops to the truth (off the record, natch) is spooky good. But that’s not enough to bring Cuesta’s film up to the edge-of-the-seat level of, for instance, Oliver Stone’s electrifying Salvador. It’s a worthy effort, and Webb’s story is important. Nevertheless, Kill the Messenger feels extremely dated: In these cynical times, it’s too little, too late, which is too bad.

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