Movie Review: Kill the Messenger (2014)- A Slightly Flawed but Undeniably Important Political Thriller That Seeks Out the Important Notion of Truth

killthemessengerUnfair or not political thrillers will always have the daunting task of being compared to the flood of quality perceptive conspiracy dramas from the 1960s and 1970s that embodied a generation’s rebellious skepticism and insightful paranoia to an artistic and significant degree. Though some films got lost in their own self-importance and idealistic philosophies, most notably James Bridges’ The China Syndrome and Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, there was still a virtue to their slanted viewpoints because they ignited conversation, which to every skeptic and critical thinker should always be welcome. In regards to the idealistic notion of truth telling in spite of the increasingly dangerous odds stacked against them in investigative journalism there was a cinematic hero to this perspective with Alan J. Pakula and his All the President’s Men, and to a slightly lesser extent his The Parallax View, created a sort of journalistic standard for the investigative journalism film. Following in this field is Michael Cuesta’s Kill the Messenger putting the veteran Television episode director of such notable series as Homeland and Dexter behind the silver screen camera in an attempt to find a significant foothold in exposing a political conspiracy in a very over amplified yet still admirable way. Written by screenwriter Peter Landesman (of the mediocre Parkland) and based on two separate books “Kill the Messenger” by Nick Shou and “Dark Alliance” by the subject matter of the film Gary Webb, Kill the Messenger finds an important resonance that’s missing from journalistic cautionary tales of late, but slightly suffers in overselling its own self-important initiatives when something as simple as the truth would suffice. In a time of potential government scandal in modern times in the form of Fast & Furious or IRS targeting Kill the Messenger comes as a reminder that investigative journalism isn’t what it used to be and that assassinating the credibility of your opponent is always better than actually winning an argument. Though Michael Cuesta’s new feature might not reach the important standard of its influential predecessors it still maintains a credible message that should be heeded by those always willing to put their eternal faith into flawed human institutions.

What gives Kill the Messenger its important narrative weight is its concern with what journalist protagonist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) states in the film as, “the truth, the facts, pretty or not.” And there is very little that’s pretty about the facts that are unfolded about the CIA and their link to drug cartels in order to finance a White House illegal war in Nicaragua beyond the checks & balances system of our instituted Republic. At the heart of the conspiracy is local San Jose investigative reporter Gary Webb as he gets seductively coerced into venturing an almost unbelievable lead that starts off with the claim that the United States Government filtered Crack Cocaine in from South America into our communal infrastructure from a rather untrustworthy start that then leads into a mystifying unraveling of secretive and illegal national security priorities. This of course leads Gary into a downward spiral of searching out dangerous leads in questionable locations, being confronted by government threats, and inevitably leads to the decimation of his journalistic career in the name of truth. Kill the Messenger still has to appeal to us on human level and Peter Landesman’s script does this by introducing us to the valid ambitions of Gary Webb on the offset and then to the struggles he has with his family before and after his life gets thrown under the scrutinizing microscope of public opinion and conspiratorial cover-up. At times the threat is slightly overstated towards Gary’s increasingly dangerous discoveries but the message remains the same that truth, no matter how unsettling, deserves to be told and that discrediting the messenger so that we ignore the facts presented to us is a current cultural disease. As a political thriller Kill the Messenger unfolds with high tension throughout making it a pulse pounding experience and all of its details are remarkably contained in a two hour running time making it an efficient, entertaining, and important cinematic experience to reflect on despite some minor flaws relating to docudrama formulaic predictability and an unsettling feeling of not feeling like a complete report of a film.

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Director Michael Cuesta has probably developed a connection to government conspiracy and political messaging through his time directing episodes for the Showtime drama Homeland and there’s a familiar pacing here in Kill the Messenger as it is on the show. There’s a complexity to characters on the show and an articulate sense towards characterization where varying attitudes towards terrorism are showcased with a genuine human defense where different viewpoints aren’t necessarily demonized or praised. While his latest film Kill the Messenger doesn’t exactly have the running time of a well thought out quality drama on television to explore the varying complexities of characters and situations it is able to do enough with protagonist Gary Webb to make an intriguing character drama about personal integrity, journalistic ethics, and standing up to for the truth no matter what weighs you down. This principled character drama is done with careful technical consideration where Sean Bobbitt’s shaky cinematography combined with Brian A. Kates’ editing brings a sense of urgency while the music from Nathan Johnson gives that underlined paranoid sense of dread. However, it’s Cuesta’s experience on television that might have been a disservice in creating that overall sense of completion for a film because as Kill the Messenger stands it is a good film with sturdy elements that occasionally drifts into preachy and erratic conclusion making (something an investigative journalist should not do). As it is with all films that feel as though they have a self-important message to deliver they tend to get frayed in their delivery to sacrifice the sympathetic human aspect of film that we’re following for overzealous conclusions that actually distract us from the message that’s supposed to land with confidence. But these are selective issues with the film and are easily ignored when you recognized that it’s a well-executed political thriller that is aided by a sense of justice and a cast that goes out of its way to make an issue of the recent past relevant and personable for our modern day.

It’s hard to remember that Jeremy Renner is an Academy Award nominee for his precise interpretation of a man who has completely become entrenched in the adrenaline of war in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker despite that it only came out in 2009. But five years in cinematic memory is practically an eternity as people become more and more interested in what comes next rather than reflecting on what has occurred. Renner is undeniably a capable actor with a range that isn’t necessarily shown trying to be a Matt Damon carbon copy in Bourne Legacy or waving a bow and arrow around as Hawkeye in the Marvel franchise. His presence in both franchises are felt but nothing as visceral as the bomb disposal adrenaline nut in The Hurt Locker or as intriguingly humorous as his take as a drug dealer in Louis C.K.’s incredibly insightful show Louie. Here in Kill the Messenger we have almost a resurgence of The Hurt Locker quality in Renner who possesses that journalistic sense of curiosity without having it be overdone or as over amplified as the message can be at times. Instead he focuses in on the simplicity of a man seeking the truth who feels every betrayal, attempts to hide his fears and faults, and obsessively marches forward not for himself but for an ideal. Alongside him is an equally felt presence of Rosemarie DeWitt who plays Gary’s wife Sue and gives the character a genuine portrayal of real emotion that is just under the surface as she finds strength in hiding her vulnerability and doubts from her children to keep a steady household going. Throughout Kill the Messenger there are numerous quality character actors who gracefully add to the political conspiracy as a whole such as Ray Liotta as an off the record CIA Agent reminiscent of deep throat or Michael Sheen as the complacent Washington politician who cheers Webb on without getting involved to really help. Of course anytime the great Andy Garcia is allowed to shine he leaves an undeniable mark on a film which he does in his brief moments of screen time as drug dealer Norwin Meneses. The entire cast showcases a subtlety of talent where no one outshines another and act as building blocks to the ultimate conspiracy reveal, whether it’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Pepper, or Oliver Platt, giving a precision to the overall chronicle that is the film Kill the Messenger.

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The truth isn’t necessarily a grey concept when it comes to reporting events as they took place because moral consideration or differing interpretation of why those said events happen is where the grey area comes to argumentative life. However, merely reporting the facts as they occur is strictly an investigative reporting tool where judgment is placed on after the facts in all of their ugliness have been revealed. Kill the Messenger as a political thriller incarnate of the 60s and 70s conspiracy genre mostly works in its restrained delivery of purpose and its intent on delivering an important message that loyalty to the facts is the only loyalty that is deemed worthy of a reporter. Unfortunately that is a message worth heeding in these times of sensational journalism where opinion is stated first instead of journalists having a dedication to seeking the facts where they lead no matter where they take you. Governments are flawed institutions made by flawed individuals with flawed intentions and exposing those flaws is the only answer in genuinely considering what actually works, what can be fixed, and how things ended up this way. Director Michael Cuesta gives this journalistic cautionary tale about personal integrity and reporting ethics credibility unseen in most reactionary political thrillers because the film seeks to sway you with felt human experience and an important message relating to the power of truth. Kill the Messenger might never reach the level of its 1970s influences, such as its leading mentor All the President’s Men, but it still is an intriguing conspiracy that wraps around you, tightens its grip, and releases you with a sense of heartbreak and anger that will keep audiences talking and that is how the truth can ultimately be discovered.

Grade: B-

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