Set in 1996, Jeremy Renner plays journalist Gary Webb – who unravels a web of corruption within the CIA, exposing the agency’s role in importing drugs in the streets of California, for his publication the San Jose Mercury News. Though confident in his sources, it seems rival newspapers aren’t so convinced, as the writer becomes a target of a vicious smear campaign, that haunts both himself, and his wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt), driving Gary to a point of hysteria.
Given this tale is based entirely on real events that took place, it remains a challenge for the audience to abide by that sense of realism, such is the overtly cinematic creations. Take Paz Vega’s Coral Baca for instance, she just isn’t authentic in any way, real people don’t talk the way she speaks. That’s not always a problem in films of this ilk, but given Cuesta is so concerned with his naturalistic approach, and having the audience immerse themselves in this tale and treat it for the true story it is (implementing genuine stock footage from the time to enhance this sentiment) – to be so inconsistent with his character creations does little but push the audience away.
The one character who does remain believable throughout, however, is our protagonist, and that’s thanks to a compelling, emotive performance from Renner. He has an innate ability to play an everyman, and drop the charisma that has made him one of Hollywood’s biggest actors, and have the audience believe in him as just a regular guy. If you take Wim Wenders Every Thing Will Be Fine, for instance, you never once believe that James Franco is a writer. In Kill the Messenger, you completely adhere to Renner being a journalist, and a devoted family man.
It’s those moments at home where this film thrives, away from the workplace and the investigation – instead in how this campaign against Webb affects him mentally, and how his marriage pays the price as a result. It’s the complete opposite to Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, whereby the intimate, family sequences are to the film’s detriment, and we crave more scenes in the courtroom. In this instance, how Webb is affected by this ordeal is an integral to the narrative as the accusations made against the CIA.
However Kill the Messenger is lacking in suspense, and given the nature of this film, and the way our protagonist becomes paranoid when becoming the subject of his own story – here’s a film that needs a higher level of intensity. Michael Mann’s The Insider is an example of how that can be achieved, and while there is a lot to be admired about Cuesta’s endeavour, it’s not quite in the same league.