Awards Profile: Kill the Messenger

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Can Jeremy Renner returns to drama...and maybe the red carpet.

jeremy renner
Directed By: Michael Cuesta
Written By: Peter Landesman

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Barry Pepper, Rosemarie DeWitt, Robert Patrick, Paz Vega, Ray Liotta, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Andy Garcia, Richard Schiff and Michael K. Williams

Synopsis (From IMDB): “A reporter becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign that drives him to the point of suicide after he exposes the CIA’s role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into California. Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb.”

Why it Might Succeed:
Combining a stellar cast with a true story that emphasizes the life-or-death stakes of heroic albeit controversial investigative journalism, Kill the Messenger seems like a sure bet to hit liberals in the sweet spot whilst angering the Ronald Reagan-loving right wing. In other words, controversy sells, often piquing the interest of the indecisive moviegoer, who’s fully willing to purchase a ticket just to see what all the fuss is about. Gary Webb is pre-Julian Assange/WikiLeaks/social media, so his personal tale of secret-spilling courage under intense scrutiny from all angles will be fresh and unfamiliar to many, like yours truly, who weren’t previously aware of Webb’s courageous, impassioned reporting. As we saw from last year’s The Fifth Estate, moviegoers won’t go to watch films whose “true story” they know front to back, or can quickly be up to date with courtesy of a few key strokes and mouse clicks.

Now that Jeremy Renner — who has the difficult task of playing the conflicted Webb in Kill the Messenger — has made himself a household name thanks to starring in major franchises like Mission Impossible and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I have no doubt he’ll be able to convince news fans of his to support his return to drama. 2009’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker was the last time we saw Renner take command of a dramatic ensemble piece, and since Oscar voters embraced him so much then, it isn’t too much of a stretch to think they’ll go to bat for him once again if both subject and real-life story are worthy of “Hollywood Liberal” endorsement. From what I’ve researched, Kill the Messenger has the ingredients to do exactly that. It also doesn’t hurt that the film is being directed by Michael Cuesta, the same man who brought us genius episodes of television, including the masterful Homeland episode, “The Weekend.” And considering I find Homeland overrated garbage that pretends to be a more sophisticated version of 24 (it’s really not…and at least 24 never lost its suspense factor), this is about the biggest compliment I could ever pay a director. If anyone can skillfully incorporate depth and character layering amidst the paranoia and brow-sweating tension of a crime thriller, it’s Michael Cuesta.

Can Jeremy Renner returns to drama...and maybe the red carpet.
Jeremy Renner returns to drama…and maybe the red carpet.

Why it Might Not Succeed:
Let’s face the cold hard truth: the “political suspense thriller” isn’t the money-making/awards-friendly genre it used to be. Hold up…I know what you’re going to write in the comments in response to my prior statement, so I’ll save you the trouble by nipping your outrage in the bud. Argo — a film I unashamedly enjoy, by the way —  succeeded because of its throwback appeal, one which also managed to kiss the feet of Hollywood and all but erect a statue in its honor. It was another instance of patting Hollywood on the back and Hollywood in turn predictably reciprocating with an avalanche of accolades. Quid pro quo. Ben Affleck wins. Hollywood wins. Ultimately, we win unless you’re a Lincoln stan on Twitter. In that case, you lost…majorly. The End. Look, unless a film resorts to such obvious tactics to win affection, don’t expect a political suspense thriller like The Conversation, The Insider or All The President’s Men to make it to the home stretch again anytime soon. Social media will plug that “based-on-a-true-story” interest hole up faster than you say “Argo F*ck Yourself!” Just look at all the recent duds in the genre that failed to translate to Oscar despite critical appreciation: State of Play, Nothing but the Truth and The Ghost Writer, for instance. And…yeesh…fuhgeddabout the ones that were excoriated (we hardly knew ya, Closed Circuit and The Fifth Estate…no, really!).

The truth of the matter is that most of these conspiratorial stories aren’t as exciting to experience at the movies as they are in reality, “LIVE!” on social media where our knee-jerk reactions may seem stupid in hindsight but still make us feel like we’re given the room to have a say. Being a passive listener in a movie theater when facing scandals this high-profile isn’t nearly as rewarding, and it’s one of the key reasons why the “political suspense thriller” doesn’t have the audience pull it once had. The same can be said about AMPAS, who find “the present” totally dull and prefer escaping to either a historically important past or a technologically blissful future. Say what you will about how shocking it was to see David Fincher’s The Social Network lose to the cloyingly safe The King’s Speech, but nostalgia will almost always triumph over a coldly delivered exhibition of next-gen social upheaval. Sad rule of thumb when it comes to movie-going: everyone wants to be entertained; no one wants to be lectured, even if it’s for their betterment.

Can Rosemarie DeWitt finally snag the Oscar nomination she missed for 'Rachel Getting Married'?
Can Rosemarie DeWitt finally snag the Oscar nomination she missed for ‘Rachel Getting Married’?

Awards Speculation:
Focus Features usually rubs elbows with AMPAS when their subject of focus is sympathetic, heroic and endures personal tragedy. Brokeback Mountain’s Ennis Del Mar and Dallas Buyers Club’s Ron Woodroof both fit that mold, as does Kill the Messenger’s Gary Webb, whose unpopular stance at the time also happened to be morally correct (Webb uncovered a connection between the CIA and the Contras, a Nicaraguan rebel group that smuggled large shipments of crack cocaine into the U.S.). Webb’s fight for truth, justice and public awareness of governmental activities turned him into a hero that many applauded from the safety of their own home, too afraid to openly show their support of the truth-seeking journalist. I can easily envision Academy voters empathizing with Webb and the personal pain he endured when the lies and public denouncements became too much for him to handle. Renner, so long as he loses the “action-star” approach and goes back to his dramatic roots, could ride a wave of precursor love if he nails this sad yet fascinating subject of interest.

It’s too early to guess which supporting player will find traction during the season, but my guess is that Rosemarie DeWitt has the best shot. Normally the “grieving wife” role in many biopics of this ilk involve a crucial scene where she confronts the husband before breaking into histrionics, which is another way of saying “Oscar-Baiting 101.” Also, “Adapted Screenplay” is very much on the table considering one would have to do a diligent job of researching Webb’s articles and findings, and then adapt his life’s work into a film that was respectful yet didn’t let the biases of its subject undermine the intriguing moral ambiguity at play. Finally, after last year’s cinematography snub for Sean Bobbit’s work in 12 Years a Slave — *aside* though, if I’m being totally honest I actually preferred his grainy, lived-in yet stylish camerawork in The Place Beyond the Pines *end of aside* — I’m sure the cinematography branch could find some way to make amends for their oversight by including him in next year’s lineup if the quality is up to par (as it always is with the undervalued Bobbit). In any event, Kill the Messenger is one of the biggest “question mark” Oscar contenders this year, and could either go all the way or fall flat on its face if its October 10th limited release date doesn’t go so well. Believe it or not, waiting is all part of the fun!

Oscar Potential:
Best Picture
Best Director — Michael Cuesta
Best Actor — Jeremy Renner
Best Supporting Actress — Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega
Best Supporting Actor — Barry Pepper
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Score
Best Cinematography
Best Production Design
Best Film Editing