The life of a newsman, with very few exceptions, is decidedly unglamorous. For every Woodward and/or Bernstein, there are 1,000 journalists trudging through the newsroom trenches, covering stories they never imagined they’d be sinking their sharpened teeth into as fresh-faced, optimistic writers looking to change the world. But every now and then, a story so hot and controversial comes along and the stars align and for a motivated writer to get a scoop or find a source that will launch him or her to fame … and maybe do some good as well. The cinema loves these kinds of stories. Films like All the President’s Men, The Parallax View and The Insider are a few examples. And now Kill the Messenger, an earnest tale about a journalist who uncovered a great story and paid the price, falls squarely into this camp.
Kill the Messenger tells the story of real-life journalist Gary Webb, who in 1996, while working for The San Jose Mercury News, uncovered a twisted tale linking the CIA to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Very simply put, Webb’s reporting alleged that the CIA looked the other way as Nicaraguan rebels funneled massive amounts of coke into the U.S. in order to fund the Contras in their home country. Webb, played by the pug-faced and always reliable Jeremy Renner, travels from California to D.C. to Nicaraguan jails to uncover the story, which he stumbles upon when a drug dealer’s moll (Paz Vega) gives him a Grand Jury transcript that was mistakenly released. After the story breaks, Webb is hailed as a journalistic hero. But it isn’t long before the CIA and bigger, more establishment papers (or so the film posits) like The Washington Post question his reporting and sources, eventually driving him from his beloved profession. In 2004, the real Gary Webb was found in his apartment with gunshot wounds to his head, a suspected suicide.
While the film ends before his death, the title card announcing it implicitly urges you to question whether it was indeed a suicide or something more sinister. Indeed, Kill the Messenger is layered with levels of paranoia as Webb falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. This film seems to have been a passion project for Renner, who is also a producer. He plays Webb as a faulted, even damaged character who has his share of personal problems. He moved his family from Ohio to California after an affair that ended very badly, a memory that still makes his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) flinch. But clearly Webb is the hero here, refusing to trade in his idealism at the urging of his editors when is feet are put to the flames. In his world, the truth will always win … until it doesn’t.
Director Michael Cuesta infuses the film with clichés, none of which are too distracting but all of which feel just a little too familiar. Renner dons the natty newsman attire of jeans and sport jacket throughout, there’s an intensely paranoid scene in a parking garage—is he or isn’t he being followed?—by the end Webb is popping pills straight from a bottle, and there are lots of characters who say things like “You should talk to this guy…” It is a movie about a journalist chasing a story, after all.
Kill the Messenger may not be the most exciting film you will see this year, but there are plenty of good performances from great actors in cameo roles, the pacing is appropriate for a story that is essentially about reporting, and the writing is confident if sometimes a little hokey. Most importantly, the story behind this story is an important one, an episode in American history that left the embattled residents of many of our poorest neighborhoods, especially African Americans in South Central Los Angeles, feeling like the government truly doesn’t give a shit about them. And even if you are inclined to give the establishment the benefit of the doubt and don’t buy into so-called “conspiracy” theories, Kill the Messenger may have you believing otherwise.
Director: Michael Cuesta
Writer: Peter Landesman
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie Dewitt, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Kenneth Williams
Release Date: Oct. 10, 2014
Jonah Flicker lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and writes about travel, movies, music, food, drink and Iceland for a variety of publications. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.