If there’s one major failing that you could point to to explain why Kill the Messenger isn’t better than it is, why it isn’t as good as it, in a perfect world, could be and should be, it’s that it simply got lost in its own genre. Because this movie looks like one we’ve seen many, many times before. Based on an important, thrilling, rage-inducing true story hidden in the bowels of recent American history, we have our plucky journalist (which, in Political Thriller Mad Libs could as easily have been lawyer/spy/amnesiac) unintentionally thrust into the middle of the biggest story of his career, following a trail that leads to the biggest of bads: the American government (in this case, the CIA). And of course, all of this takes an immeasurable toll on his personal life, which he’s also trying to sort out. Sound familiar? Of course it does; we see this movie about once a year, usually right about now, around the start of Oscar season. Kill the Messenger may make a halfhearted, timid attempt to set itself apart by playing with this overkilled storyline just enough to make it different, but it’s never enough to actually separate itself from the unavoidable comparisons.
’s arms plays Gary Webb, a journalist for the San Jose Mercury News, a newspaper that may not feature local coupons and reviews of school plays, but is most definitely not a widely respected publication. In exploring a case of civil asset forfeiture, Webb stumbles into a government conspiracy in which the CIA knowingly brought drugs into the U.S. in order to raise money for the Reagan’s Contras in South America. As if that weren’t bad enough, what Webb finds also makes it look like, in order to keep up with the extreme supply provided by the government, the dealers were forced to create a new, cheaper drug out of all their expensive cocaine: crack. And whether this found its ways to impoverished urban areas, specifically South Central L.A., by chance, or if it was a deliberate, maniacal weapon aimed directly at those neighborhoods to destroy them, is left up to question.
The movie’s strongest move by far (besides, of course, the casting of Jeremy Renner
’s sunglasses) is how it plays with the timeline we’re used to in these types of docu-thrillers. Webb’s big exposé is published not at the end of the film, with a triumph, but at the midpoint. And from there we are left to witness the fallout. Michael Sheen, as a previously disgraced Washington D.C. insider bureaucrat type, warnes Webb that the number one weapon his enemies have is his own reputation. And sure enough, after a brief moment in the sun, heralded as a journalistic hero, he begins to be quickly and very, very publically torn apart.
There are a lot of reasons why this movie should be better. Jeremy Renner gives an amazing performance. He shows us here the charisma we’re used to from him, plus depths we’ve never seen. Also very very pretty hair and arms. The supporting cast (including Rosemarie DeWitt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, with cameos from Andy Garcia, Tim Blake Nelson, and Michael Kenneth Williams, to name just a few) is also top-notch, even if their characters get a bit lost in the muddle. Top of the list, though, of why the movie’s shortcomings are disappointing, is that this is one of the most important and also shadiest stories in American history. And the movie really DOES do justice to it. It is exciting, and sad, and well-paced and brilliantly acted. It just never manages to crawl out from under the weight of a genre that we are overly familiar with, to be anything we don’t feel like we’ve already seen many times over. So while it is a GOOD movie, that’s ultimately disappointing because it we wanted it to be GREAT.