Kill the Messenger review: A lesser ‘All the President’s Men’

Michael Cuesta’s film lacks conviction in telling Gary Webb’s cover-up story

Kill the Messenger
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Director: Michael Cuesta
Cert: 15A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Pepper, Michael Sheen
Running Time: 1 hr 58 mins

Lest we be in any doubt as to the inspiration – and target audience – for Michael Cuesta's gripping, if occasionally shaky, true-life story, the picture begins with archival footage of Richard Nixon discussing the evils of drugs. It is impossible to consider Kill the Messenger without bringing All the President's Men into the conversation. The picture even features an early scene in which our gallant reporter lurks inquisitively at the back of a pre-trial hearing. As in the earlier film, the criminal is revealed to have connections with shadowy wings of the US security apparatus. Once again the editors go out on a limb. This time, however, the Washington Post is among the enemies.

The continuing enigma that is Jeremy Renner – talented, but tragically short of charisma – stars as Gary Webb, journalist for the mid-ranking San Jose Mercury News who, in the 1990s, uncovered the CIA's apparent involvement in importing cocaine during the Reagan administration. The film is never too far from a thundering cliche. Do investigative journalists really pin photographs to the wall and connect them with bits of string? Wasting Rosemarie DeWitt on an archetypal nagging wife role feels like a minor outrage. Yes, this hack does wear a corduroy jacket.

Still, the details of Webb's story are laid out with great lucidity as the paranoia is layered on to impressive effect. When a convicted drug dealer reveals a connection to the security apparatus, Webb travels to Nicaragua and begins piecing together an apparent government-approved scheme to finance the Contras. All this is shot in the energetic faux-documentary style that Cuesta brought to Homeland.

The film takes a properly equivocal line on socio-political extrapolations that were drawn from Webb's stories. This version of the journalist would admit that the supposed plot fuelled the crack outbreak in urban areas such as South Central Los Angeles, but, though he is repeatedly linked to wild accusations, he never claims the inner-city devastation was the CIA's intent. Webb suspects the security apparatus of viewing the drug-related mortalities as collateral damage in a geo-political conflict.


Nonetheless, the suspicion that Webb was peddling conspiracy theories – fuelled by the stories' dissemination via the then-unfamiliar internet – offered enemies handy opportunities when the scandal gained traction. Interestingly, big beasts from the news media, aggrieved by this scoop from a local paper, seem to have been just as assiduous in their efforts to shut him down as the security community. In an irony that hardly needs stressing, the Washington Post, the organ that helped uncover Watergate, worked hardest to discredit Webb.

The film’s second half should stoke outrage and fuel resentment. Webb gets shuffled away from investigative reporting and ends up writing about sick police horses in Cupertino. Yet the film lacks conviction. The more his accusers mention the shoddy nature of his sources, the more doubts begin circulating in the viewer’s hitherto receptive mind. When brows are furrowed at his story of a mysterious CIA insider breaking into his hotel room to deliver anonymous confirmation, it proves hard to stop one’s eyeballs from swivelling upwards.

We needed something that was either much less one-sided – encouraging doubts and relishing shadows – or was considerably more committed in its creative bias. Although skilfully made and often exciting, Kill the Messenger ultimately fails to flog us its key contention. All the President's Men could gesture towards Nixon's resignation to back up its claims, but, more significantly, it convinced us we had seen Woodward and Bernstein crossing all Ts and dotting all Is (though obviously we hadn't).

Diverting, nonetheless.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist