If you can imagine Nixon resigning in the middle of All the President’s Men, with the remainder of the film dedicated to Woodward and Bernstein fighting their editor, you have a pretty good idea how Kill the Messenger plays out. It’s not a bad film, but it is a sloppy one that squanders a firecracker start and a terrific performance from Jeremy Renner. As Gary Webb ponders whether to publish his inflammatory story, he is advised that, “Some stories are just too true to tell.” Such is the case with some scripts, which, in their admirable haste to relate the truth, forget the requirements of compelling storytelling. If you want to find the heart of Webb’s story, you’ll have to dig a little deeper.
Rather than the political surveillance looked at in Brazil, corporate surveillance is the primary focus, though the film’s weak digs at both that and the impersonal nature of our online modern age lack any of the bite of the earlier film. Exploration of the latter idea certainly isn’t helped by the writing of Bainsley, a character lacking in any agency of her own. Thierry is victim to an uncomfortable amount of fetishistic objectification, present even outside of the few scenes in which it contextually makes a little sense. Kim Griest’s well-rounded, independent heroine is just one of the ways in which Brazil still has punch today as a key science fiction work; The Zero Theorem, an effort that never excels, is a light shove at best.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one already: a low-level cog in a comically large bureaucratic environment in a grotesque-looking “future” dystopia struggles in the face of obsolescence and oblivion. The character in question is fundamentally good, but incredibly weedy, their resolve and spirit having been ground to stumps by the world around them.
Though writer Pat Rushin scripted and conceived the story of The Zero Theorem, one can be forgiven for assuming Terry Gilliam came up with the narrative himself, being that it comes across as the work of someone who either saw every film Gilliam’s ever made or just happened to direct them. Indeed, The Zero Theorem sees Gilliam very much in his storytelling and thematic comfort zones, though sadly to diminishing returns. It openly scrounges scraps from earlier efforts, especially Brazil, but has little idea how to develop its ever so slightly different ideas beyond thin sketches.
More than perhaps any other director, the work of Ernst Lubitsch has been the most noticeable influence on Wes Anderson’s style. Though the great German-American writer-director, most prolific in the 1930s and 1940s, was never quite so aesthetically bold in the look of his sets, he too was preoccupied with meticulous staging for comedy within his chosen locales, be they the titular Shop Around the Corner or the Parisian hotel of Ninotchka; The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in a fictional European country, the Republic of Zubrowka, another Lubitsch trait from works like The Merry Widow and The Love Parade, though The Shop Around the Corner happens to be set in the city Anderson’s mountaintop lodging house takes its name from. He garnered the descriptor of ‘the Lubitsch touch’ thanks to the moving sincerity that always made itself evident within even his more broad comedic premises, and Anderson’s own best work is that in which a recognisable humanism always makes itself known and potent even within the stylised stiltedness through which most of his characters are written and performed.