Kill The Messenger weakened by its cinematography

In 1996, the San Jose Mercury News writer Gary Webb published a series of investigative articles entitled “Dark Alliance,” revealing that the CIA supported cocaine trafficking in order to raise funds for weaponry to use against the Nicaraguan government. Webb’s ground-breaking stories led to the demise of his own career and personal life, as the media turned against him and attempted to disprove his stories when no CIA member would testify that Webb’s claims were true. In 1998, when the CIA finally confirmed what Webb had written, the nation was too focused on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to notice.

This story went practically untold until filmmaker Michael Cuesta’s Kill the Messenger brought the tale to Hollywood box offices. Cuesta brings us into Webb’s (played by Jeremy Renner) world and allows us to see the entire process of writing the story through his perspective, proving all of Webb’s sources before his writing is disputed.

The film tracks this small-scale journalist and his multiple drug busts before a young, pretty Latina woman (Paz Vega) tells him that the U.S. government was funding her husband’s cocaine empire. Webb follows her through multiple trials before he finds the bigger story behind the husband’s trial and unveils one of the biggest national conspiracies of all time.

Webb travels to Nicaragua to see the drug trafficking center, interviews government workers and prisoners who worked with the CIA-hired drug lords, and we, as an audience, cheer him on while biting our nails at what’s to come when the relentless Agency reads the paper. We are on Webb’s side from the very beginning, and when the media—including Webb’s own editors to which he all but says ‘Et tu, Brute?’—questions his sources and quotes, we feel his frustration. When it’s revealed at the end of the film that Webb commits suicide (although the wording of this fact made it seem like his death could have been a homicide) we, as an audience, grow infuriated with Webb’s community and the journalistic resources that betrayed his quest for the truth.

Cuesta’s re-telling of this story makes for an interesting ‘meta’ commentary on film in general: investigative film has the power to revive journalism and tell fuller, bigger tales that often gain much more recognition than they did in print. This cinematic privilege, however, is too often betrayed when fact is mixed with fiction.

Though the film does a great job in pulling us into this intriguing story and giving us genuine emotion, its biased storytelling was hard to look past. My real problem with Kill the Messenger was the camera’s persona (or lack thereof). Cuesta needed to decide between two types of filmmaking: he could have gone the documentary-esque, cinema verité route, or he could have stuck with conventional Hollywood cinematography used in most of today’s fictional films. Instead of picking one, Cuesta used both of these styles interchangeably and forged too thin of a line between truth and reality.

Many of the scenes in the film are shot with a handheld camera, and the frame is so shaky that it’s clear the filmmakers are forcing the shots to look unstable and disorienting. This effect is often used in films that are investigating some kind of truth; the shaking screen reminds the audience of the presence of the camera, making it clear that we are learning these truths alongside the filmmaker, so we believe everything we hear because it’s not staged or scripted. Kill the Messenger contains many scenes shot in this way, especially when Webb visits some of his most crucial sources, so we are convinced that we are seeing unedited, unscripted truth.

The film also uses found footage—tapes of news anchors from the time of the story and clips from major news stories—to set up a realistic world. However, these real clips are often edited to include actors, and, even worse, Cuesta at times uses the grainy found footage look to make some of his own scenes seem like they were from major news sources, when in fact they were constructed on a film set.

Then, suddenly, Cuesta switches to scenes filmed on tripods, using traditional cinematic conventions in shooting conversation scenes—a medium shot of two men on a bench, each of them on the ‘thirds’ lines to fulfill photography’s ‘rule of thirds;’ eyeline matches which connect the two people and stick to the 180-degree law that the camera cannot cross; long shots of the conversation from afar, setting up the scene from a bird’s eye view—these are all shots that could not be obtained with a handheld camera in the grips of a filmmaker following a journalist around to find some answers. These shots are staged and storyboarded—they are fictional interruptions in a believable film.

While the core of this story was intriguing and emotion-packed, the cinematic techniques made Cuesta’s retelling too biased and untrustworthy, proving that filmic journalism can rarely ever maintain a neutral standpoint. 2.5/5

This review was made possible by Railroad Square Cinema, where you can catch “Kill the Messenger” Daily at 2:15, 4:40 and 7:00. Also Fri. and Sat. at 9:15 p.m. and matinees Sat. and Sun. at 12:00 Noon.

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