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Kill the Messenger Review: More "Mediocre" Like This, Please

Friday, October 10, 2014 Rob Samuelson

Kill the Messenger

Director: Michael Cuesta
Writer: Peter Landesman
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Andy Garcia

Walking out of Kill the Messenger, I was reminded of something that has bugged me for a while. “Good not great” is often seen as a mark of the limp, the middle of the road, disappointment. We're always on the lookout for perfection and we don't always appreciate when things are pretty all right. Take our city's hockey team for instance. They're entering their seventh year of league dominance, with two Stanley Cup championships in that span. But because they were a lucky bounce away from possibly adding a third ring last year, I am upset and struggling to get back on the “full throated fandom” horse with a new year of possible greatness having just started while I was in the theater. Instead of enjoying the fun ride, I worry about their window closing and that the fun will dry up.

This is a silly thing to worry about, but we movie buffs do it all the time. We look at the state of Hollywood – billion dollar franchises of dubious quality, sequels and remakes galore, et al – and freak out when something that doesn't fit within that narrow moneymaking bracket isn't perfect. When Argo won Best Picture at the Academy Awards a couple years ago, the narrative had it that it was because Ben Affleck's third straight solid, thinking adult's entertainment was a mediocrity that was hard to root against – more difficult art was somehow forgotten. Same thing with the awards season hype for American Hustle last year, which failed to take home the Oscar, but was unfairly maligned by some as a bad movie when it was merely a not perfect one – pretty good, in fact, but nothing to knock you over. Kill the Messenger, I worry, is headed for the same fate. And often, in our less reflective moments, we worry about these entertaining mark hitters – they don't fail, but they don't transcend the medium to teach us something new about ourselves or the world – mean that filmmaking is in danger or has already crossed the Rubicon into the banal and therefore, death. I'd argue that's a huge mistake. These are the types of movies we need more of. They should be the baseline and be treated as such, because they are better than the Transformers of the world, no matter what our emotions tell us when we're disappointed in non-perfection – what hubris. And Kill the Messenger is part of the solution.

In it, Jeremy Renner stars as Gary Webb, a journalist for the San Jose Mercury News who discovered through what amounts in the film – I cannot vouch for how it happened in reality – to a fluke of clerical error that the CIA had worked with Nicaraguan rebels who also happened to be flooding the United States with cocaine. Perhaps the CIA weren't the ones selling the drugs and conspiring to addict the poor on crack, but their planes were used and they supported these cartel-rebels because they were on “our” side of the Cold War. Webb follows the story where it takes him, and he uncovers a slew of corruption along the way. He publishes a harrowing story and gets commended, wins awards, goes on national television. Then the denials come flooding in. Some sources change their stories. Others disappear. Soon he looks less reliable, possibly fraudulent to the public's eyes.

It is in this, the fallout, where the movie lives. His triumphant publication, which, in a lesser movie, would have been the end of a long line of hard work, tenacity, and do gooding, instead forms the basis for a sadder story about perception and how it can quickly turn on the weak when the powerful have their say. It's a tremendous, powerful story, populated by terrific actors – Renner has been on quite a roll these last several years – and the way it pursues its theme about telling the truth no matter the consequences is stupendous.

Don't sleep on Peter Landesman's script, either, because he never forgets or sells out his central characters, Webb and his family. Rosemarie DeWitt is forgiving, strong, and wounded as Webb's wife, and their family life as depicted is one of great effort to make everything work, despite indiscretions and obsessions that can easily derail it. Renner as Webb is abrasive, sure of himself, and self-righteous when called for, but he's not without his deep flaws. He doesn't always make it easy on himself when interviewing people, often reverting to combativeness rather than necessarily looking for understanding. It's exceptional character building.

But a great script, layered characters, and a thematically satisfying ending – though not a happy one – do not make a great film. The direction of Kill the Messenger is competent and nothing more. Director Michael Cuesta comes from the world of television, one that rewards efficiency. That's how things need to work in such a tightly scheduled medium, where there are only eight days or so to shoot an episode. Unfortunately, this rarely leads to great artistry on the filmmaking side of things. Having directed several episodes of Dexter and Blue Bloods, Cuesta has developed a style that is handsome but nondescript. It stays out of the actors' and script's way, allowing them to do often great work.

However, on a film where there is only an approximately two hour window to do things right, more is needed from the director, particularly on a film like this, which requires a boatload of exposition. I understand the idea to present things as realistically as the medium will allow because of the journalism angle, but this isn't a documentary. There are different requirements, and Cuesta barely addresses those, let alone the requirements of the paranoid thriller genre. There's one moment in a parking garage that Cuesta shoots as a pair of tracking shots, with Renner in the foreground of each and a blurry-faced man following him. It's thrilling and the blur of the possible pursuant's face is subjective, concise, and offers all the information the audience needs while simultaneously ratcheting up the tension. It's a superb bit of how to do both efficient and artful direction, but it's the only notable moment in the film of that variety. The rest is filled with straight-on shots of Renner thinking, lots of conversational two-shots, and that's about it. Cuesta doesn't invalidate the story's claim to being worthy of the cinematic medium, but he doesn't use that medium to its full extent.

And that's okay. I remained entertained, shocked, moved, and most of all informed by Kill the Messenger. Just because it's not going to end up in any future editions of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die doesn't mean it's not good. It's a well made picture that happens to have flaws. Let's welcome that and embrace it, then hopefully there will be more like it. I know I like to experience those feelings mentioned above, even if they aren't the strongest versions I've ever felt.

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