Kill The Messenger review: A gripping thriller hot off the presses
Jeremy Renner shines as a gritty newspaper reporter in this taut, if complex, tale of high-level corruption, says Andrew Johnston
Movies about journalism tend to portray the profession as much more exciting and glamorous than it actually is. With Marvel's Hawkeye, Jeremy Renner, in the lead as the sunglasses-wearing, motorbike-riding investigative reporter Gary Webb, Kill The Messenger is no different. Though, to be fair, the true-life tale of the San Jose Mercury News writer who took on the big boys - both those in government, and in the major news outlets - is gripping stuff.
In the mid-1990s, Webb became the target of a sinister smear campaign when he exposed the CIA's alleged role in arming the anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into the US, much of which apparently ended up in African-American neighbourhoods. Against this backdrop, Webb's own family was falling apart, thanks to a brief affair the scribe had years earlier. It's an ideal basis for an adult-oriented thriller.
In his first film as producer, Renner plays the freewheeling Webb, a bearded, heavy metal-listening hack, whose dogged determination to get to the facts sees him at once feted as journalist of the year and hounded to the brink of suicide by mysterious forces. His fearless pursuit of the truth is matched only by his unpreparedness for the personal hell his investigations will invoke. It's an interesting dynamic, and Renner inhabits the character well.
There are numerous instances of Webb clashing with his editor, wandering about in the dodgy side of town or following leads to far-flung locales. If he occasionally seems like James Bond with a dictaphone, Kill the Messenger is anything but an action flick. Despite the omnipresent threat hanging over proceedings, there are no real showstopping set pieces, and credit to director Michael Cuesta for not pandering to perceived mainstream audience expectations by contriving any.
Lauded for his work on television series such as Six Feet Under, Dexter and Homeland, Cuesta knows how to weave an intricate yarn, and he's not afraid to take on challenging subject matter. Indeed, the helmer's past big-screen efforts have seen him tackle paedophilia (LIE), bullying (12 and Holding) and, er, Blue Oyster Cult (Roadie).
But, as Michael Sheen's federal prosecutor Fred Weil says in Kill the Messenger: "Some stories are just too true to tell." And so it is here, with Webb's travails proving so dense that the movie struggles with them like a fisherman handling a thrashing salmon. There's just so much going on, from the US's involvement in Central America to Webb's own familial strife, that Cuesta - directing a screenplay by Peter Landesman, adapted from Nick Schou's book of the same name - never quite gets to grips with each element.
Things aren't helped by a cast list that throws out star names like a rock band chucking plectrums to the crowd. As nice as it always is to see the likes of Sheen, Andy Garcia or Ray Liotta on screen, it might have served the piece better to cast unknowns in these actors' small parts, which exist primarily to shunt the film on to its next scene.
Still, when Kill the Messenger is at its best, it's up there with any fact-based drama, and the denouement delivers the necessary emotional punch.
Meanwhile, anyone who has ever grafted on a newspaper will be happy to have Jeremy Renner as their surrogate for a couple of hours.