Kill the Messenger (Focus Features, R)

killthemess 75It’s too bad that this story was broken to me by an unsubtle, overly dramatized, slightly-above-average film; something tells me that’s not how Webb would have wanted the world to learn about the work he did.

 

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Kill the Messenger is one of those films that is based on a true, important story that you likely don’t know much about, and you will probably leave the theatre wanting to learn more about it. This sounds like a compliment to the film, and to a certain degree, it is, but at the same time it’s a little backhanded—you leave the theatre wanting to know more about the true story because the movie doesn’t tell you enough about the true story. The film’s strength is that it finds an important story to tell, and its weakness is that it doesn’t do a good enough job of telling it.

The story in question is that of journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner, who probably thought he was getting into a possible Oscar role when he signed on), who in the mid-90s broke a story linking the CIA to the importation of crack cocaine and the ensuing epidemic in South Central L.A. This story was published by his regular outlet, the San Jose Mercury News, which is a substantial metropolitan daily but is also not quite in the big leagues with papers like the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, or the Washington Post. When the story hit, Webb was attacked from all angles—competing news outlets did their best to discredit him (and did so somewhat successfully) for retribution for breaking such a big story in a small-ish paper, of course the CIA was after him, etc.

See? A strong story. And the movie, directed by Michael Cuesta (TV’s Dexter and Homeland, among other things) has a cast full of talented actors. Renner aside, we have Rosemarie DeWitt as his wife Sue, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his editor Anna Simons, Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar comin’, yo!) as an early informant Ricky Ross, and many others. The problem is that all of these non-Renner actors feel underused; I often have a soft spot for movies that populate small parts with big actors, but here it all just feels like a waste.

The overriding tone of this review has been negative, but truth be told, I did enjoy this movie. It just made me wish that I were watching a documentary about this material, is all. Or reading one of the two books it’s based on (one of which, Dark Alliance, is by Webb himself), or, most preferably (and least likely), that Bill Hicks was resurrected from the dead and went on a tirade about this. It’s too bad that this story was broken to me by an unsubtle, overly dramatized, slightly-above-average film; something tells me that’s not how Webb would have wanted the world to learn about the work he did. | Pete Timmermann

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