One of the basic tenets of journalism is to aim for objectivity. Approaching a story from a number of angles is key to revealing the truth. How ironic then that Kill the Messenger, a film that’s supposed to be about revealing the truth, gets too caught up in its own moral agenda to tell a story from more than one side.
That story is of Gary Webb, a headstrong reporter at a small-time newspaper who in the mid 90’s happens upon a rather shocking discovery; the American CIA may or may not have supplied weapons to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua with money that may or may not have been come from the cocaine trade in California. If you’ve seen a film about investigative journalism before then you can be forgiven if you nod off for the first hour or so because there’s nothing here you won’t have seen before. Webb interviews informants, and shadowy authority figures deliver veiled threats with the predictability of the bloody tides.
The supporting cast is stacked to the nines with excellent character actors that you kinda recognise from that one thing you saw that one time, but their parts are essentially glorified cameos. You barely have enough time to check the internet to see where you remember them from before their one scene in the film is over and you have to rewind because you completely missed what actually happened.
Jeremy Renner, harking back to his strong early roles in The Hurt Locker and The Town after slumming it in blockbuster land for the last five years or so, plays Webb himself. We should all be very happy that he chose to star in this instead of a sequel to Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters because he gives quite a compelling performance. Renner’s Gary Webb is determined, but also a bit of a self-righteous pain in the arse. He’s more interesting than you’d have any right to expect from such a procedural plot, and it’s a hint towards the more character focused direction the movie takes in the second half.
There’s a significant shift in gears once Webb’s article is published and he gets immediately dog piled by the CIA and rival publications that Webb beat to the story. His credibility and personal life are savaged, and the tone of the film abruptly changes from thriller to drama. This is where the comment about a ‘moral agenda’ really comes into its own. While it manages to present Webb with a fair degree of complexity, the film idealises him and treats his actions as naively heroic. Anyone who questions him is immediately painted as a git, including his editor and publisher, even though they might be right to question a story that has few credible sources and only one side. What happened to Webb was horrifically unjust without question, his career and family are left in tatters, but the film never moves beyond that. He’s never portrayed as being completely out of his depth, even though he had no experience with a story of that magnitude and no political or intelligence contacts to help him along. Being constantly smacked over the head with how tragic this story is feels condescending and ultimately dull.
Kill the Messenger hardly rises beyond a level of basic competence. Performances are strong, but the writing and technical presentation fall into the middle of the road and end up feeling pedestrian and simplistic. But what ultimately sinks the film is how in love with its subject it is. A lack of sophistication and depth means good intentions only get it so far. That’s probably a lesson Kill the Messenger could’ve learned from Gary Webb himself.