“We operate in shades of gray.” This simple yet powerful line delivered by a corporate executive to Gary Webb is quite contradictory in light of the film, which as it turns out, does play in blacks, whites and absolutes. Kill the Messenger is an aptly named film that tells the true story of Gary Webb, an investigative journalist whose story on government-aware drug distribution got him crowned conspiracy theorist and lost him his credibility. It is also yet another domino in the long line of contemporary cinema preaching the harms and fall of the media. Passing below the radar around this time, this adaptation of a true story shines in its visuals and the performance by Jeremy Renner.
Opening with a premise from which only so many plots can be drawn, it does not hold many surprises for the viewer. But that is not to say that the lack of such twists and baits takes away from the enjoyment of the movie, because truth be told it is an interesting one. Jeremy Renner plays in one of his more refined performance of late, the role of Gary Webb, whose journalism is concerned with the lives of drug-dealers and the ways prosecution and arrest have affected them. Needless to say, he jumps at the chance to report the story of the U.S. government working with the drug mafia to distribute cocaine to African Americans. Webb is a man dedicated to his work for life, and to him it is more than a profession, it is a quest for truth. I felt that the character was quite well developed, commandeered by a suitable Jeremy Renner. The movie for the most part though paints the picture of a rightful family-man who surprisingly seems to be chummy with his kids without acting lame. But a certain allusion by his wife to his past brings up some troubling questions about his loyalty to his family. And for a man who has been shown as always pursuing the story no matter where it leads him, shrugging off the threat he poses to his family, such a doubt is capable by itself of turning the picture upside down. Thankfully, the film does not make attempts to glorify or put down the real Webb, with the sole exception of his motorcycle craze which at times is a reaching out in desperation.
Renner is not the solitary merit of Kill the Messenger, with uniform stern acting all around from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt and Andy Garcia among others. The cinematography is also appropriate for the time it tries to visualize: an early 90s America. Adopting a cool palette of turquoise and pale greens, it does not falter to hold our attention. Most certainly, as this is that kind of movie, there are interspersed many scenes of handheld footage used here in its most clichéd arena of antisocial and immoral behaviour, narcotics being the sole focus of this film. I must say, the scenes which involve Webb on the field, near the ghetto and in Nicaragua could have been executed better, but the general stance of this film seems to evade the too-nasty and immerse solely in the drama of character. While this could seem a wise decision, the tone set by Michael Cuesta does not subscribe to such a treatment, causing the film to lack flesh at times. It strikes a discordant chord when the intense drama is offset by an onslaught of shaky camera and grainy footage. It just might be my subjective opinion, but I believe the way this film turned a blind eye to the gruesome details took away from its full purpose. It would have been a tad better had they not at once alluded to such spectacles with jarringly different tone and visuals.
Where the film does excel is in the message which it gets through to its audience with clarity: the scavenging media and the grip it is held in by menacing people in powerful positions. Gary Webb is hunted in cold by the CIA for his story about their involvement in drug distribution, and their response is impressive while at the same time alarming. Harvey Specter says, “Play the man”, and that is carried out with finesse as focus is shifted from the story he reported to Webb himself. This poses the question of what matters when it comes to truth – the source or the story. Is it in any way essential that the man who uncovers a truth be flawless in his own right? A singular stain on your profile is enough loose thread for the vultures to swoop in: this is the primary message of the film. The film also highlights the corporate pressure, at times even in blunt manner, that smaller houses of media are subjected to by the big whales. Power is everything in holding an empire, and in the news business, such power decides the reaction of the people for them. Webb is not faced with a threat to his family or life, but to his readership and credibility, which are perhaps of more substance to a man like him.
The perfect execution of film is found in awareness of where it resides. Therefore, it is the director’s discretion that must decide what the film is striving to be, and what elements to include and not for maintaining consistency. This is where some of my major concerns lie: while the tone implied seems to be of a media thriller, there is not enough flesh in the story to make memorable. The insertion of images from the ghetto and other wrenching realities could have been left out entirely, but it is the decision to include and execute in poor taste was the pitfall of the film in my head. Leave this qualm aside, and Kill the Messenger is a fairly investable story led by a character caught up in the mess of media strangulation and big bullies, who we can all identify with for the most part. He is not faultless, but does have idealistic expectations of print media and truth, all observed in, as I said at the start, blacks and whites. While the film does do well to detail Webb’s paranoia and it adding to his reputation as a conspiracy monger, it does demand us to accept some absolutes in Webb’s conviction to the cause and the interference by intelligence agencies. What I did like about the direction of the story is also one of my reservations: the involvement of the CIA and the popular media is restrained to pave way for their pursuit by the journalist. While this does serve its purpose in limelighting the character, the audience’s investment in the character feels starkly reduced as it appears that we are told only one side of the story – his – and are asked to accept his right as the only right. Such insulation of the viewer from hearing the other side of the story takes its toll on the development of the main character who now has nothing to be tested against. In A Beautiful Mind, such exclusion could be pulled off since the entire situation was taking place within Nash’s mind, which is clearly not the case here. Therefore while I liked the film’s handling of his pursuit and investigation – especially in Nicaragua – the veil behind which those sentenced ‘culprits’ by the film stay hidden took away from the message that was attempted to be conveyed by the film. This may not strike many as a problem, but it is a problem I couldn’t resolve in my head while watching the film.
A good true story film requires a clever interplay of facts and fiction/speculation, and an equally balanced blend of grounded evidence and cinematic themes. This I believe was carried out quite well by Kill the Messenger which marks milestones in the televised news and big fish such as the Washington Post to string together the more theatrically enhanced bits. I mentioned before how it is pertinent that a film is discovered and presented for what it is, not reaching for something the story just isn’t suited for. An error on this front was to me the inclusion of Webb’s fascination with motorcycles and his relationship with his children. The sequences of him working on his bikes and such seemed at times a plead from the film’s creators to sympathize with the character as a regular old Joe who cares for his family and his vintage bike. The personification of the American dream, I must say, is felt throughout this: in the well furnished home, classy vehicles and family dynamics. I feel there certainly must have been quite some edited out from the final cut since, to take for one, Gary cursing the world for the theft of his bike seems unearned and sticks out as a sore thumb for we have close to no foreground on his closeness to the bike. It was potential that the explosion of his eldest son against Gary would raise eyebrows for the same reason of being undeserved, had not the overarching message been how even a small stain in story can compromise the integrity of an individual.
Kill the Messenger speaks into an overworked microphone of the vices of mass media and delivers a mixed bag of the suitable and the not so suitable. It is definitely not a snore-fest, and does manage to hold its viewer captivated for the entirety of its runtime, something that is not so difficult with the material it had to handle. I believe the film could have been a little better, and maybe with more prudent directorial choices and a less simplistic analysis of the situation, this could have been a thriller for the age. What does manage to lift this film from generic hell is Renner’s performance which serves its purpose, and the pace at which the plot is developed, which is taut and measured. The film feels as though afraid of crossing certain lines regarding what is shown on screen and does play with shaky-cam to stay on the safe side of the very media it tries to criticise in its way. As ironical as that was, Kill the Messenger is a one-time watch that does not demand the application of your mind but still succeeds in making things interesting.