Michael Cuesta directs Jeremy Renner in a scene from Kill the Messenger.
Kill the Messenger ***
<em>San Jose Mercury News</em> investigative reporter Gary Webb sparked furious debate when a piece he wrote alleged that Nicaraguans, hired by CIA-supported Contras, smuggled cocaine into the U.S. which was later transformed into crack and distributed in African-American communities. (The story broke in January 1998, but was overshadowed by headline-grabbing news of Monica Lewinsky and a cigar.) Michael Cuesta (<em>L.I.E., 12 and Holding</em>) brings Webb’s story to the screen in the style of a briskly paced ‘70’s political thriller. Jeremy Renner, who also produced, stars as a beleaguered crusading journalist who falls victim to a malicious witch-hunt. (The real-life Webb was later found with 2 bullet holes to the head; his death was ruled a suicide.) The pace slackens a bit in the third act, and scenes of Webb and his son bonding over a motorcycle hammer home our heroes earlier-established Everyman status. Still, I wasn’t bored for a second.
At their best, the films of Michael Cuesta raise awareness. His debut feature, L.I.E., was a daring attempt to show the human side of a child molester. His latest film, Kill the Messenger, is based on the findings of former San Jose Mercury News investigative reporter Gary Webb. Webb sparked furious debate when a story he broke alleged that Nicaraguans, hired by CIA-supported contras, smuggled cocaine into the U.S., which was then transformed into crack and distributed in African-American communities, with profits going directly back to the contras.
Timing is everything. The story failed to capture America’s attention, thanks to the Monica Lewinsky scandal that hogged the headlines at the time. Webb was later found with two gunshot wounds to the head. His death was ruled a suicide.
I was fortunate enough to squeeze out a few minutes with Cuesta, who was busy working the junket circuit. Here’s what he had to say:
Scott Marks: Your first two films, L.I.E. and 12 and Holding, deal openly with sexual situations between adults and minors. How did you get Brian Cox to agree to play a child molester?
Michael Cuesta: I hired a good casting director and we had a list. She pointed out Brian and I didn’t know his work. I kind of remembered him from The Boxer or something. We sent him the script and he loved it. It was pretty easy getting him. He thought Big John Harrigan was a great character, a super-smart jovial force. The character needed to be that: charismatic, smart, manipulative. All those things Cox does ingeniously.
SM: Given the nature of both films, it was surprising to see how funny they are.
MC: I wrote all of that into the script. There is humor in everything, even the darkest of places. It wasn’t hard to do that. What makes humor is irony. It’s always the uncomfortable laughter that is the most powerful. They are very difficult worlds where people don’t like to go.
SM: 12 and Holding is also the first film that introduced a lot of us to Jeremy Renner. You sent a relative unknown on his way and he returns an established, Oscar-nominated star willing to take producer’s credit for the first time on your film. His loyalty is commendable. Where did you first find Mr. Renner?
MC: I met him before 12 and Holding. I was going to make a very commercial horror movie. He came into the audition, but he didn’t want to read. He said to me, “Why are you making this movie, man? I loved your first film. This one sucks.” I thought he was so brave and so ballsy, and he was right. I had doubts about it and I pulled out of the movie two weeks later. I have always credited Jeremy for that. I went and made 12 and Holding and cast Jeremy because I remembered him.
SM: How much faith do you have in Gary Webb’s writings?
Kill the Messenger Official Trailer
MC: He didn’t have the opportunity to connect all the dots. I think they printed the story too soon. It was a little undercooked and they didn’t package it properly. There are two sides to the story: what Gary actually wrote and how people perceived it. The perception is what killed him. A lot of the things that people were saying were things that he didn’t write. A lot of it had to do with the way it was edited and presented. Gary didn’t have a big hand in that. I put the blame on the editing.
SM: If you had to pick an ideal audience demographic for this movie, who would it be?
MC: I think it would be people who really have a love for good political thrillers. I would say a slightly older audience, people who are hungry for films like All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, and films like that.
SM: A good old-fashioned newspaper picture!
MC: Exactly. A guy on a beat. I approached it very much like a ’70s filmmaker. Plus, we shot it on film; we didn’t shoot digitally. It was very conscious. My [director of photography] had just finished 12 Years a Slave and Old Boy and he shot both of those in 35mm. The studio wanted us to shoot digitally, but we were adamant about it. I was able to get them to agree to 35mm because they realized it was a throwback film that had to have that look.