A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Kill the Messenger is a troubling, engrossing, and memorable thriller based on the life of journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), the San Jose Mercury News reporter who first reported the link between drug smuggling, the CIA, and the funding of the Contras in Nicaragua and was first lauded and then denounced for it. The film deals with serious material and makes use of real news footage depicting crack addicts and the human toll of the Nicaraguan civil war. There's plenty of swearing ("s--t," "a--hole," "f--k," and more), brief moments of violence (two men are threatened by a group of men armed with guns, for instance), social drinking, smoking, and a frank portrayal of how one man's life unspooled in the face of extreme pressures.
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What's the story?
In 1996, Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a reporter working in the San Jose Mercury News' Sacramento bureau, stumbled on a story about a drug dealer whose assets were seized, which led him to an even bigger journalistic fish: the CIA's involvement in drug smuggling and gun-running in Nicaragua. It's an explosive discovery, one with significant criminal, political, and sociological implications. But as soon as Webb reaps the plaudits, the attacks begin. And not just from those he's writing about, some of whom are as sinister as they come. But from within his industry, too: Did he report his articles correctly? Why doesn't he have more sources on record? How did a reporter in a small bureau nab one of the biggest stories of the decade? His marriage to his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), still delicate after a struggle, begins to unravel, and his editors (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt) start backing away, leaving Webb alone to weather the pressure and the isolation.
Is it any good?
Jeremy Renner is an actor with incredible access to his intensity, and it's primarily because of him that KILL THE MESSENGER delivers. When he seethes, his entire person seethes. When he glowers, all of him does. And when he's in pain, as in one scene involving a car, the entire audience can feel his pain fly off the cinematic frame. Through him, we get to know a journalist wholly committed to the mission that many others in his field cite as their raison d'etre: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
But as the film shows, it's a mission that many have forgotten. Fear and complacency drive decision making. And some in the news business seem all too willing to ignore one story for a juicier or -- in Webb's case, given that the other option was to take on the CIA and the government -- an easier one. Kill the Messenger tells its story with lots of energy; the camera moves as quickly as Webb does. And when it slows down, as in one scene toward the end involving an escalator, there's a foreboding, confining shift to the pace. (The direction in that particular scene is inspired.) The script is sometimes prone to heavy handedness, unnecessary given its already dramatic material. But Kill the Messenger will leave viewers wondering about the changing nature of journalism and of truth in general -- and how complicit we all are in clouding the truth, whether in big or small ways.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why Gary Webb pursued a story that put him and his family under the microscope and within sights of dangerous criminals. Was he committed to doing his job right, or was it irresponsible (or perhaps a mix of both)? If you were him, would you do the same?
How accurate do you think the movie is? Why might filmmakers change some details of true stories when making a movie?
Talk to your kids about the real-life events depicted in the movie. How could you find out more about the things Webb was reporting on?
Does a movie have to be violent to be scary or intense? What makes something a thriller?
- In theaters: October 10, 2014
- On DVD or streaming: February 10, 2015
- Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Tim Blake Nelson
- Director: Michael Cuesta
- Studio: Focus Features
- Genre: Thriller
- Run time: 112 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language and drug content
For kids who love thrills
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