Know Your Rights, by David Bax
There are plenty of reasons to make a fictionalized, narrative film based on actual events instead of a documentary about them. For instance, making slight changes to the truth in order to fit a more conventional structure can actually make the point more impactful. And, often, diffusing reality can allow the deeper, more universal truths to shine through. It’s hard to be sure, though, what possessed director Michael Cuesta to dramatize the story of journalist Gary Webb in the informative but flat Kill the Messenger.
Jeremy Renner stars as Webb, an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. After he publishes a story on the unfair seizure of the property of suspected drug dealers before they’ve been convicted, he is approached by the paramour of one such alleged criminal, played by Paz Vega. She has evidence that one of the largest drug traffickers in the country has been working with the tacit permission and perhaps even collaboration of the United States government. Webb’s dogged research leads him to Sacramento, Los Angeles, Nicaragua and Washington, D.C. before culminating in an explosive reported published in his paper. The tragic and inevitable fallout makes up the movie’s second half.
Inevitability has a lot in common with predictability, though. While the investigation half of the story sustains interest simply by being a good detective yarn, the turgid drama of the aftermath finds a tone of oppressive woefulness and then settles there.
There are some highlights to be found in the consistent popping up of some of the best character actors in the business. Well, the male ones, at least; Kill the Messenger scoffs at the Bechdel test. No finer a pairing of talents than Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Rosemarie De Witt get to finally share a scene together late in the film, only to discuss Webb. Still, it’s fun to see Robert Patrick, Barry Pepper, Yul Vazquez, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael K. Williams, Oliver Platt, Andy Garcia, Michael Sheen, Richard Schiff and Ray Liotta (whew!) try on variations of furtive and intense guys in suits.
It’s not as if Renner isn’t good as Webb. In fact, he’s very good. But the screenplay never allows him to surprise us. It’s hard to see why this dramatized prestige picture with an all-star cast needed to be made. Indeed, the most compelling parts of the film are the documentary-style ones, in which information is relayed via montages of actual footage from the time and the events depicted. There are ways in which both fictional and documentary films can bring the truth to a life that is bigger than the facts alone. Kill the Messenger is just an adaptation of a Wikipedia entry.