I’m going to be a lot more enthusiastic about this film than I should be. I am sure many other people will find flaws in the film and a lot of audiences will be turned off by the depressing ending, even if that’s true to life.
Kill the Messenger, produced by and starring Jeremy Renner, recalls Oliver Stone’s early work. It is passionate, it is desperate, and it captures something very important about what’s going on in the world.
The film is about Gary Webb (that’s Renner), a journalist at the San Jose Mercury. He uncovers evidence that the CIA used the profits of cocaine sales from Contras to fund the war in Nicaragua. They even let the drug dealers go so long as they worked as government informants, even though these Contras were bringing in far more product and leaving far more money. This was at a time when Reagan’s war on drugs was in full effect and when Congress had specifically passed laws to prevent money from going to the Contras.
The first act is a wonderful thriller. Webb goes to Nicaragua and interviews the people who helped traffic the drugs. He is attacked by Nicaraguan law enforcement and ignored by the CIA. He publishes his article and gains a high amount of acclaim.
And that’s where his troubles begin.
In a short time, thanks in part to the CIA and his sources suddenly lying about meeting with Webb, he is discredited, reassigned, bankrupted, and ultimately dead from an apparent suicide.
But that’s the real story of Webb. You can find that on Wikipedia or by reading his books. What does the film do with this material?
It makes us feel as Webb undoubtedly did on his journey. The first act practically turns him into a superhero, with Renner hopping from place to place armed with his trusty notebook and his terrible handwriting. He believes in his own abilities to the point that it almost becomes sort of hubris. He thinks he will change the world and he will create a lasting effect.
Which is why the second act (there is no third act, really) is so emotionally destructive. All of that is promptly taken, not due to government influence but due to competition in other media outlets.
Yes, the ending is depressing. There is no redemption for Webb. It’s going to shock a lot of people, especially in our current age of cynicism. Shouldn’t Webb be embraced by his profession even as the CIA goes after him?
But then, real life doesn’t follow such a neat structure. This is pretty far from All The President’s Men. That film was about men seeking the truth and, despite push back, having all the support from their profession. Webb wanted to be Woodward – that’s a natural part of the profession. But the film focuses more on the man than the story. In that way, it feels more honest about what usually happens.
Is it flawed? I’ve mentioned how jarring the change in tone might be to audiences, but that’s not necessarily a flaw. I will say that the script glosses over some of Webb’s darker attributes, like his affair at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In fact, that one element is built up as a huge plot point (they keep referencing a “woman in Cleveland” in ominous tones) but it’s hardly a surprise that he had an affair. The way its built up implies he left her under the floor boards. Also, there’s an inexplicable scene in which Ray Liotta shows up as a Deep Throat figure that ultimately means nothing. This isn’t about vindicating Webb, because that didn’t happen in his lifetime. Yet that’s the only reason Liotta is present. It’s a good scene on its own, but it distracts from the themes of the overall work.
However, I do think Kill the Messenger is an important film. I’ve been starved for films that actually want to convey a message and not just be complacent. Audiences have gotten used to giving audiences shiny objects upholding the credo that good will always be rewarded and evil will always lose. Well, life isn’t so simple. The good may not always be rewarded, but it is still important. For all its flaws, Kill the Messenger drives that point home in a desperate, necessary way.