“Kill the Messenger,” based on the true story of the late Sacramento investigative reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), invigorates when it follows veteran reporter Webb on the trail of the biggest story of his life, one in which he will link the 1980s crack trade in the United States to the CIA-backed contra rebels in Nicaragua.
But the movie does not give enough sense of the man before or after he reported the controversial 1996 “Dark Alliance” series for the San Jose Mercury News, his then-employer.
The nation’s biggest newspapers challenged Webb’s conclusions in his three-part series, and his own paper’s editor eventually wrote a letter to readers acknowledging the series had problems. The backlash continued, ruining Webb’s reputation. He left the Mercury News in 1997 and did not work for a daily newspaper again before his suicide in 2004.
The film truncates the post-“Alliance” blowback period to about a year, a storytelling approach that does not succeed. Though well-acted and at moments thrilling, “Messenger” fails to satisfy as a story of the little guy taking on government corruption – because the little guy is crushed and there is no bigger narrative payoff. Yet the movie does not detail Webb’s post-“Alliance” odyssey adequately enough to be a satisfying character study, either.
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The “Alliance” story is bottomless, from the newspaper series to Webb’s 1998 book “Dark Alliance, the CIAs, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion,” in which he explained his reporting process (and on which this film is based in part), to the stories challenging “Alliance” that The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times wrote in response.
And you do not have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe that no one reporter can get to the whole truth behind CIA involvement in anything. It’s the gosh-dang CIA, as Webb keeps telling his editors in “Kill the Messenger.”
So director Michael Cuesta (former executive producer of the Showtime CIA drama “Homeland”) and screenwriter Peter Landesman deserve credit just for bringing such a difficult story to the screen. Because although Webb might have overreached in some ways, he was on to something in a broader sense, as a 1998 CIA inspector general’s report suggested when it found the CIA had continued to work with certain contras despite drug-dealing allegations.
It’s that part – the being on to something – that fuels the best parts of “Messenger.” Renner plays Webb, an investigative reporter in the Mercury News’ Capitol bureau, as skeptical but intrigued when a drug trafficker’s glamorous girlfriend (Paz Vega) gives him a grand jury transcript that serves as the first link – according to the movie’s version of events – in a chain from a prolific Los Angeles crack dealer (Michael K. Williams) to Nicaraguan drug suppliers who funneled proceeds to the contras.
In these scenes, Renner comes off as the very best version of a newspaper reporter, playing Webb as dogged without being agitated. He appears good-humored and seemingly relaxed but also clearly laser-focused as he questions a drug kingpin (a wry, neck-scarfed Andy Garcia) in a Nicaraguan prison and a Washington, D.C., insider (Michael Sheen) as he traces connections from street drugs to the contras and the CIA.
The Central American scenes, and those set at Webb’s Carmichael home, all were shot in Georgia, but you wouldn’t know it. They seem appropriately leafy. Also, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s (“12 Years a Slave”) hand-held camera work keeps things immediate rather than sweeping.
This close approach helps maintain tension in a movie whose essence is a guy sitting at a computer, or poring over court documents, or discussing his potentially explosive story with his editors (Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
The more obvious “thriller” elements, like a scene in which government agents meet with Webb and vaguely threaten his family, lack the impact of one in which Webb talks about the “Alliance” story, as it is still developing, with his editors. Neither Platt nor Winstead is on screen for long, but both of their characters will be familiar to anyone who ever worked in journalism.
Platt plays the paper’s top editor, Jerry Ceppos, as a straightforward guy, encouraging yet cautious when Webb first tells him about the drug-CIA connections. Winstead, as his direct editor (and a fictionalized character), lets more excitement show. This young woman clearly is invested in a project that could make her career as well as her reporter’s.
Later, when the worm turns, Ceppos seems like the same guy he was before, but Winstead very subtly shows how her character, after reading the winds, recedes from her initial support of her reporter. With her own job on the line, she saves herself.
That worm turns when other newspapers start picking apart Webb’s story. A scene set in the L.A. Times newsroom, in which an editor fumes at being scooped on a story in the paper’s backyard, encapsulates the movie’s portrayal of the media backlash. This is to say, the movie is clearly on Webb’s side and not theirs, with objectivity nowhere to be seen.
Webb goes on television to defend his work, and finds comfort in his understanding, patient wife (a natural, salt-of-the-earth Rosemarie DeWitt). But when things unravel, it is too quickly and dramatically, because the film distills the backlash period into about a year’s time, when its repercussions lasted until Webb’s death.
Ceppos’ letter to readers puts a distance between the paper and Webb. The reporter is transferred to the Cupertino bureau, two hours from home, in what appears to be a move to get him to quit. But he stays, at least for enough time for Cuesta’s “Homeland” to start showing.
In Cupertino, Webb obsesses over the “Alliance” case, self-medicates and otherwise becomes Carrie from “Homeland.” This shorthand for circumstances getting the better of Webb does not serve Renner. The actor starts doing Tom Cruise-style physical acting, stiffening, jerking and eventually breaking a window, to display frustration. Renner’s performance, though good overall, takes a hit in this section.
The bigger problem is we don’t know enough about Webb as a man, because the film has been about him as a reporter. The few scenes that show him with his family suggest a close bond with his wife and children but don’t go far enough.
The most enticing glimpse into his personality comes when Webb faces a hostile crowd with humor, grace and grit. This guy, this Webb, is one the audience would love to know better.
But the scene comes near the film’s end, so there is no opportunity for that.
KILL THE MESSENGER
* * 1/2
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Director: Michael Cuesta
Rated R (language and drug content)