Powered by Jeremy Renner’s strong lead performance, Kill The Messenger is a solid recounting of journalist Gary Webb’s inflammatory exposé of the CIA’s role in the illegal importing of drugs into the US and arming of Nicaraguan rebels in the mid-1990s. Taking its cues from Webb’s own writings and Nick Schou’s book of the same name, Michael Cuesta’s film provides a cohesive and often engaging telling of Webb’s investigation, the fanfare with which it was received, and the tragic fallout that followed its publication.”
Following an ill-conceived, unsightly opening credits sequence, splicing newsreel footage and headlines in a well-trodden fashion, Kill the Messenger‘s opening act takes time to settle into itself, a few narrative and tonal stumbling blocks rearing their heads early on. As the instigator of Webb’s investigation, Paz Vega’s vampy turn serves to briefly derail the film’s otherwise sober tone. Meanwhile, wife Sue’s (Rosemarie Dewitt) suggestion of Gary’s previous infidelity overtly foreshadows his later fall from grace, while scenes with doe-eyed son Ian (Lucas Hedges) inject an uncharacteristic mawkishness throughout. Kill The Messenger doesn’t completely overcome these early tumbles, but once the ball gets rolling in Webb’s case, there’s little let-up in pace for the remainder of the first half. Cuesta litters the film with familiar character actors. Robert Patrick, Michael K. Williams, Michael Sheen and more besides dip in for a scene or two to advance the plot, before being dispatched elsewhere for the remainder of film’s 112-minute run time. There’s also ample support from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and the ever-reliable Oliver Platt as Webb’s superiors, their roles becoming all the more significant following the publication of Webb’s Dark Alliance series.
The film’s second half is undoubtedly its more engaging section, Peter Landesman’s screenplay cohesively navigating Webb’s increasing alienation from his peers and family. There’s a palpable anger that permeates the core of Cuesta’s film, matched by its respectful depiction of Webb himself. Renner does fine work, balancing Webb’s cocksure self belief with an unmistakably well-intentioned agenda, lending his downfall a definitive sense of tragedy. Often sidelined in bigger-budget affairs, its undeniably the actor’s strongest showcase since The Hurt Locker, Webb’s charismatic abandon building upon the warmth he brought to the otherwise underwritten Carmen Polito in American Hustle. It’s a shame then that, despite Renner’s best efforts, the film is rendered somewhat inert by its lack of heart. With a lot of expository detail to communicate within the Dark Alliance case itself, the dissolution of Webb’s family unit ultimately lacks the emotional heft it should possess. This is due in part to Dewitt’s underwritten role, while Webb’s relationship with son Ian feels particularly underdeveloped. The final reel’s home-video footage of a smiling Webb playing with his children is immeasurably more moving than any of their scenes together.
Yet for what it lacks in emotional impact, Kill The Messenger is nonetheless a solid telling of an important story, one that honours the legacy of Gary Webb and feels thematically resonant in the current age of CIA whistle-blowers. One can hope that, if nothing else, the film at least reminds studios that Renner is more than capable of carrying a film himself.