Wednesday, October 22, 2014

In Theaters: KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Michael Cuesta. Written by Peter Landesman. Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Pepper, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Paz Vega, Michael Kenneth Williams, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Robert Patrick, Richard Schiff, Gil Bellows, Yul Vazquez, Lucas Hedges, Dan Futterman, Josh Close, Steve Coulter, Susan Walters, Clay Kraski. (R, 112 mins)

Though it has some flaws in its execution, particularly in its second half, it's a shame that the compelling KILL THE MESSENGER isn't finding an audience. That Focus only has it on 425 screens nationally isn't helping, but it's also indicative of the fact that smart films for adult audiences--films that used to be commonplace--are now largely relegated to art houses and limited/VOD releases. With just a $5 million budget and a sizable cast of well-known faces taking a pay cut to be onboard, KILL THE MESSENGER is obviously a project that the actors believed in and it'll find an audience eventually, but with its incendiary subject matter and a riveting performance by Jeremy Renner, it should be getting more attention than it's received thus far. Based on Gary Webb's 1998 book Dark Alliance and Nick Schou's 2006 book Kill the Messenger, the film tells the story of Webb (Renner), a small-time San Jose Mercury News reporter who stumbled onto a story that blew the doors off the CIA's involvement in cocaine trafficking and the crack epidemic in South Central L.A. that helped fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

KILL THE MESSENGER opens in 1996 with Webb following the money in the trial of drug dealer Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez) and sticking his nose into the story to the point where the irate prosecutor (Barry Pepper) drops the charges. Webb figures out that Blandon is both a drug dealer and a paid CIA informant who needs to be operational in order to supply the agency with the information it needs. Acting on a tip from incarcerated drug runner Ricky Ross (Michael Kenneth Williams), Webb's detective work leads him to Nicaragua where imprisoned cartel boss Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia) informs him of the CIA's involvement in the drug trade to fund the Contra rebels a decade earlier, which was the government's only way to secretly pay for a war that Congress wouldn't approve for President Reagan. As Webb's investigation deepens and ominous government officials strongly encourage him to back down, it only fuels the fire and when the story runs, Webb is the toast of the journalism world, much to the delight of his editors (Oliver Platt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead). His triumph is short-lived, however, as he soon realizes he's being followed, he spots a prowler in his driveway, and finds silent, sinister men in suits in his basement, rifling through his files. The CIA and other news outlets begin a smear campaign to discredit him, digging into everything in his past, including an affair he had while working at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which led to Webb moving his wife Susan (Rosemarie DeWitt) and kids to California to start over.

For its first hour or so, KILL THE MESSENGER is cut from the same cloth as ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976), SHATTERED GLASS (2003), and the Robert Graysmith investigative portions of ZODIAC (2007), the kind of newsroom nailbiter where the tension is cranked up and every conversation is an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Director Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.) and screenwriter Peter Landesman (the little-seen Kevin Kline drama TRADE) have studied the classics and the film is propelled by an excellent Renner, in maybe his best performance yet. But once Webb's bombshell of a story is published, the filmmakers keep the focus strictly on Webb, despite the explosive implications of the bigger picture. On one hand, I get that he's the central character and everyone--from his previously-adoring editors to jealous competitors to shady CIA operatives--is trying to throw him under the bus, but other than a Los Angeles Times editor (Dan Futterman) chewing out his staff for missing the boat on the story, we never get a grasp of just how much Webb's story has shaken things up. All we see is the effect on his job (he's busted down to the Cupertino office, which seems to be located in a strip mall) and the soap-opera subplots for his family, with his adoring teenage son (Lucas Hedges) sobbing "I'm disappointed in you," when he learns of the affair, and Webb telling his wife "I never stopped loving you" when they reunite after Cupertino. Though Webb's story should be told, the KILL THE MESSENGER story is bigger than just Gary Webb. Cuesta and Landesman (and probably Renner, for that matter) seem conflicted over lauding and paying tribute to Webb while trying to do the right thing and show him as a flawed human being. They wisely avoid the pitfall of devolving into grandstanding pontification and canonizing the protagonist (can you imagine if Oliver Stone directed this?). Webb has cheated on his wife and been forgiven, though Susan lets him know that she hasn't forgotten. His CIA/Contra story, while completely true and enough to have the top levels of the US government in a panic, isn't air-tight as far as sources go. If anything, KILL THE MESSENGER probably needed to be a longer film in order to include all facets of the story and not make the second half feel glossed-over and scaled-down, and the detours into Webb's personal life flow more smoothly.

Gary Webb (1955-2004)
Though Renner is front and center, he and the film get solid support from the fine ensemble, many of whom only have one scene but make it count. Garcia is terrific as Meneses (when he mentions an "Ollie," Webb asks "Ollie?  You mean Oliver North?" Meneses: "No, Oliver Hardy. Yes, Oliver North!"), Michael Sheen has a marvelous bit as a weary and disillusioned congressman who knows the story needs to be told but warns Webb that it will only ruin him ("They won't address the story...they'll just attack you"), and Ray Liotta has an odd scene that doesn't really go anywhere but allows him to serve as this film's Donald Sutherland-in-JFK. Until its midpoint, KILL THE MESSENGER is thoroughly engrossing, suspenseful filmmaking but it doesn't really follow through on its potential. Imagine ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN if it paused the Watergate digging and cut down the scenes with Jason Robards, Jack Warden, and Martin Balsam to introduce subplots about Woodward's and Bernstein's personal lives. That's not to say it isn't worthwhile--it's a very good film that, for a while, flirts with being almost great. Though the focus shifts to Webb the man, it doesn't follow him all the way to his tragic end as the CIA released a 400-page report later in 1998, admitting its complicity and completely vindicating Webb, though that story received almost no coverage because the media was focused on the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. In December 2004, Webb was found in his apartment with two bullet wounds in his head.  His death was ruled a suicide.

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