‘Kill the Messenger’: Retribution at Its Most Vile

This film presents the inspirational yet tragic, true story of reporter Gary Webb.
‘Kill the Messenger’: Retribution at Its Most Vile
Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), in "Kill the Messenger." (Focus Features)
Michael Clark
 R | 1h 52m | Drama, Crime, Mystery, Thriller, History | 2014

For anyone who works for a news reporting company, watching a movie like “Kill the Messenger” (“Kill”) will hit close to home. The members of the Fourth Estate have been dwindling in number for a while now, and this film will remind us of a time when there was no Fifth Estate—no Internet where community newspapers could find themselves on the national stage and international stages.

In the mid ‘90s, long after Ronald Reagan left office, Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, was handed a gift every journalist dreams of: inside dope that could lead to a story that would likely rewrite history.

(L–R) Jerome Ceppos (Oliver Platt), Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), in "Kill the Messenger." (Focus Features)
(L–R) Jerome Ceppos (Oliver Platt), Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), in "Kill the Messenger." (Focus Features)
If you were of age during the Reagan administration, you’ll remember the Nicaraguan “arms for hostages” debacle that retired Army officer Oliver North referred to as “a neat idea.” It took forever and a day, but that eventually became old news, yet few knew at the time that the U.S. involvement in Nicaragua was largely funded by the sale of illegal drugs by the government to (mostly low-income) U.S. citizens. This is a fact backed up by truckloads of documentation and participant testimony.

Old School Reporting

An old-school hoofer, Webb was given a sealed grand jury testimony packet by the wife of a top-tier drug dealer who was being tried on trafficking charges for the sole purpose of getting Webb to stir the pudding and get the prosecutor to drop the case. This worked exactly as she planned, but what she and nobody else counted on was Webb following the money trail, which dovetailed out in all directions and reached some Very Important People in Very High Places.

Even though it’s set in the ‘90s, “Kill” has the look and feel of the classic conspiracy thrillers from the ’70s, “All the President’s Men” and “The Parallax View,” in particular, both directed by Alan J. Pakula.

Veteran TV helmer Michael Cuesta (“Homeland,” “Blue Bloods,” “Dexter”) goes far to underscore this film with the same kind of controlled paranoia and frantic bureaucratic spin that were Pakula’s calling cards. Even if you already know the story, which was overshadowed by the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, “Kill” will seem new and keep you thoroughly riveted throughout.

Director Michael Cuesta on the set of "Kill the Messenger." (Focus Features)
Director Michael Cuesta on the set of "Kill the Messenger." (Focus Features)

Based on books by Webb and Nick Schou, screenwriter Peter Landesman distills the two publications into a streamlined, and seamless whole with no narrative overlap, punched up with heavy doses of sarcasm and gallows humor. He also brings in characters of major importance to the story and, along with Mr. Cuesta, he limits their screen time rather than unnecessarily fleshing them out beyond their usefulness.

These performances are delivered by actors (Andy Garcia, Tim Blake Nelson, Robert Patrick, Michael Sheen, and Ray Liotta) we usually see in higher-profile roles, yet the filmmakers relegate each to only one or two key scenes. Rarely has such a brilliant supporting cast been used with such powerful efficiency.

Getting into the particulars of the plot here would not only take up more space than afforded, it would be particularly unfair to possible interested viewers. It’s clear that the filmmakers put a great deal of care into the finished product, and it would be safe to assume the first rough cut of the movie ran much longer than the final 112 minutes. If more studios employed this same sort of judicious brevity in the editing process, the quality of all movies would increase exponentially.

Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia), in "Kill the Messenger." (Focus Features)
Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia), in "Kill the Messenger." (Focus Features)

Not the Worst of It

Even though what Webb found and subsequently wrote about will pin your ears back and further your level of disgust regarding the federal government, it isn’t the worst thing that happens throughout the movie.

The treatment Webb received from his editor (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and publisher (Oliver Platt) is, at best, mercurial and, at worst, cowardly, back-stabbing, and two-faced. When it appears Webb is on to something big, they’re all for it; but when the fall-out begins, overshadowing his painfully researched work while calling his motives into question, they throw him under the bus.

The title of this movie couldn’t be more fitting. What happened to Webb was disgraceful, and went far in turning investigative journalists into a dying breed no amount of bloggers or slipshod Internet trolls could ever replace.

The film is available on home video and to stream on Vudu, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV.
‘Kill the Messenger’ Director: Michael Cuesta Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead MPAA Rating: R Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes Release Date: Oct. 10, 2014 Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5
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Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.