Through the first half of Kill the Messenger, I found myself thinking that this journalism drama would have blown me away if I’d seen it 15 years ago. And then I realized that I was wrong. This thing is too overheated and poorly written to have impressed me even in that pre-Twitter age.
The film is based on the real-life story of Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter who came across a bombshell in 1996, discovering that the CIA had imported tons of crack cocaine from South America into the United States in the 1980s to provide funding for the Nicaraguan Contras — the agency was willing to supply cheap, massively destructive drugs to the poorest Americans in order to fight Communism abroad. His series of articles was one of the first to spread primarily across the internet, with readers across the country finding a story that otherwise never would have reached them. Yet when TV networks and major print news outlets finally acknowledged Webb’s story, they picked apart his sloppy sourcing and overgeneralizations, even though the main thrust of his articles turned out to be right.
Jeremy Renner plays Webb, and this technically keen actor finds the character’s self-righteous zeal to uncover the truth. The trouble is, we don’t see any shades of paranoia or dissolution that would explain why Gary might be left vulnerable when the mass media go after his personal life. Look no further than Gone Girl if you want a stronger movie illustrating how easily an ordinary person can be publicly smeared. This is supposed to be a story about a journalist who’s destroyed by the biggest scoop of his career, and there’s no sense of tragedy in the movie or in Renner’s performance.
Despite that, director Michael Cuesta sustains the momentum well enough through the movie’s first half, as Gary outwits a U.S. attorney (Barry Pepper) at a trial to get incriminating information on the record and meets with a drug lord (Andy Garcia) in a Nicaraguan prison yard. Still, the director fails to show us where Gary’s slipshod reporting leaves him open to critics with an agenda or tell us why his sources suddenly turn on him. There’s a really clumsy scene with Gary admitting an extramarital affair to his teenage son (Lucas Hedges), and Peter Landesman’s script (based on Webb’s book Dark Alliance and Nick Schou’s book Kill the Messenger) is filled with clunkers like, “Some stories are just too true to tell.”
These days, dark government secrets are more likely to be exposed by people like Edward Snowden than people like Gary Webb, so I’m not sure what a movie about Webb is supposed to tell us about our world in 2014. Kill the Messenger comes off feeling like a self-important rant on an issue that no one cares about anymore.
Kill the Messenger
Starring Jeremy Renner. Directed by Michael Cuesta. Written by Peter Landesman, based on Gary Webb and Nick Schou’s books. Rated R.