Saturday, November 21, 2015

Kill the Messenger (2014)

Director: Michael Cuesta                               Writer: Peter Landesman
Film Score: Nathan Johnson                         Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt and Andy Garcia

This was an absolutely fascinating idea for a film, the true story of Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who uncovered the link between the influx of drugs into the U.S. in the eighties and the CIA sponsored war in Nicaragua. But despite a tremendous cast and solid direction, Kill the Messenger never really lives up to its promise. The problem is the screenplay by Peter Landesman, and it’s a similar problem to the one faced in American Sniper. Webb died in 2004 from an apparent suicide, and there seems to be a real sense of obligation on the part of Landesman to adhere as closely as possible to the facts in homage to the writer. Unfortunately that doesn’t allow for a lot of leeway in finding ways to change the story for dramatic effect. The screenplay was based on two books, the first is Webb’s own book-length writings on the original story and the aftermath called Dark Alliance. The second is movie's namesake, a biography of Webb called Kill the Messenger by Nick Schau written after the reporter’s death. The irony is there are still factual inaccuracies in the film reviewers quibbled with that could have been easily overridden had the changes resulted in a more dramatic story arc. But director Michael Cuesta, who has primarily worked in television, does as much as he can with the story, creating a good-looking film that should garner him more feature work.

The opening credits are paired with documentary footage of U.S. presidents from Nixon through Reagan pay lip service to the War on Drugs, when drug money was being used to fund all kinds of covert activities that couldn’t be funded through legal government channels. The film begins with Jeremy Renner as Webb, getting an interview with Robert Patrick, who has had his home seized as part of a drug bust, even though he wasn’t convicted. But before the interview can really get going, the police break in and arrest everyone, including Renner. Though his editor at the paper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, doesn’t like the direction he’s taking, he is writing interesting stories. After reading the story, Paz Vega contacts Renner because her boyfriend is in jail on drug charges. She claims that the man testifying against her boyfriend, Yul Vazquez, is a government funded drug dealer. So Renner, chasing down the story, goes to court and confronts prosecutor Barry Pepper about the alleged connection between the government and Vazquez, and suddenly Vega’s boyfriend is set free. At that point Renner realizes she was just using him to get her boyfriend released, but she tells him that despite what she did, Pepper’s release of her boyfriend proves the government connection. At this point Renner contacts Tim Blake Nelson, who is the lawyer for the boyfriend’s boss, Michael Kenneth Williams, who is also in jail awaiting trial. He confirms that the government drug dealer, Vazquez, had more drugs than his underlings could sell.

This time Renner sits on his knowledge and waits until Vazquez is actually on the witness stand to testify against Williams. When Nelson, who is cross-examining him, starts to question him about his government connections, Pepper essentially threatens the judge to get her to stop Nelson, but it backfires and she allows him to be fully questioned and Vazquez admits that the money he was making from selling drugs in the U.S. was supporting revolutionary efforts in Nicaragua. Armed with that knowledge, Renner heads to Central America to interview the man who ran Vazquez, now sitting in a Nicaraguan prison. Andy Garcia confirms that the CIA was funding his drug operation, and sends him to his lawyer, Brett Rice, who also confirms this and shows him the private property where the operation was located. But when Renner writes his story, bad things begin to happen. The CIA makes an all out assault with its public relations department to deny everything. They smear Renner by digging up an affair he had, coerce his witnesses to change their stories, and get other major newspapers to print that he lied in his article. At this point not only does his editor and her boss, Oliver Platt, turn on him, but so does his wife, Rosemarie DeWitt, and their oldest boy, Lucas Hedges. It’s a downward spiral that can’t be stopped, even after the truth comes out a few years later that his story was correct.

The best thing this film has going for it is the incredible star power involved, including a cameo by Ray Liotta as a former CIA operative who confirms everything. Jeremy Renner gives perhaps his best performance since The Hurt Locker, but the screenplay hems him in in terms of dealing with any serious threat to his family. The CIA is smarter than that. They harass from a distance, but with his article being public record, they’re not going to kill him . . . yet. What’s most disappointing is the way his editor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, abandons him. It’s embarrassing that she and Oliver Platt let themselves be dissuaded from their personal knowledge of this man they’ve known for years. The same goes for Rosemarie DeWitt. The best part of the film is the disillusionment that Renner undergoes as a result of his experience. He is given a journalism award when his article first appears, but by the time of the ceremony his reputation has been trashed. During his speech he says that he used to think he was a good reporter, but as a result of this recent controversy he realizes he had never written anything of importance before. Webb’s story, however, is an important one and is very well done, as demonstrated by its initial popularity. Though whether the film, as a film, will hold up in the long run has yet to be seen. Despite its flaws, Kill the Messenger has a lot to offer and is certainly worth a viewing.

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