Kill the Messenger: The Gary Webb story in two hours

It should surprise no one that governments, including our own, have sometimes acted in ways unbecoming of a free democracy. They’ve done bad things, and as is the case with any organization that’s committed questionable acts they’ve often tried to sweep those sins under the proverbial rug. We’ll never know how frequently they’ve gotten away with it, but sometimes a brave soul speaks up — a whistle blower, a member of the press — and the government is shamed into proper behavior once again. (Until the next time anyway.)

Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News in the mid ’90s with an interest and nose for investigative journalism. A tip from a drug dealer’s girlfriend puts him on the trail of a story that at first even he finds difficult to believe that leads him on a trail of shady individuals, from overseas crooks to cabinet members in Washington D.C. The details he uncovers involving the C.I.A., Nicaragua’s freedom fighters and the crack epidemic on the streets of the U.S.’s biggest cities are part of a bombshell revelation, but bombs can cause collateral damage.

Kill the Messenger alternately engages and enrages as it relates the true story of one man’s battle between his integrity and the country’s reality, but while it mostly succeeds in that vein the film’s greatest strength is its star.

Webb gets support from his editors early on as the story comes together as the kind of revelatory reporting that wins recognition and awards, but when the government agencies fight back and the nation’s bigger newspapers turn the tables to tear down the reporting Webb discovers that ideals have consequences. The film — written by Peter Landesman, based on Webb’s 1999 book “Dark Alliance” and Nick Schou’s “Kill the Messenger” — moves through Webb’s investigation from Washington D.C. offices to a Nicaraguan prison and barely allows time to celebrate his accomplishment before the blow-back begins.

Director Michael Cuesta‘s film works best for viewers at least somewhat unfamiliar with the real life details allowing room for suspense and legitimate shock at what Webb uncovers, but even those aware of the full allegations will be engaged by Renner’s performance and the weight of it all. It’d be easy to forget how good of an actor he can be as his parts in films like The Hurt Locker and American Hustle seem to exist in the shadow of his more action-oriented roles in The Avengers or The Bourne Legacy. He’s still portraying a hero here, but instead of a gun-toting man of action he’s more in line with the men and women at the center of films like The Insider and Nothing But the Truth. Tortured between a drive to do his job, to do what’s right and the realization of what it could mean for his life and family, Renner makes Webb’s desire and doubts palpable.

He proves his ability as a lead performer, but the supporting cast is equally capable and diverse — seriously, just look at this list of recognizably talented faces: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Paz Vega, Barry Pepper, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael K. Williams, Oliver Platt, Andy Garcia, Michael Sheen, Gil Bellows, Dan Futterman, Richard Schiff and Ray Liotta. Some of them appear in multiple scenes while others pop up for just a few minutes, but all of them add to a depth and authority to the film.

The script is a bit less sure of itself when it comes to hitting the necessary dramatic moments and delivering dialogue that doesn’t feel like dialogue. “Some stories are just too true to tell,” says one character, and you can almost hear the film’s marketing team debating its use on the movie poster. Webb’s home life including a past dalliance that endangered his marriage are touched on, but we quickly move with him to a motel without fully experiencing the central emotional conflict. Again, it’s not the actors faults as Renner and DeWitt (as Webb’s wife) do excellent work, but the film moves us so quickly from beat to beat that the impact is often lost in the shuffle.

The film is interspersed with real news footage, and while it shows the true to life consequences of the story we’re not given the same courtesy for much of what came next. Webb’s story is within the film’s time frame, but the bigger story, the one he uncovered, had repercussions and mutations that deserve inclusion here to create a more complete picture. It’s not an issue of a film simply not covering everything, but instead that additional follow-up info has real bearing on viewers’ takeaway of Webb and the reported events.

Kill the Messenger uses real events (as reported by Webb and subsequent investigations) to tell a specific story, but the larger message here is a timeless one. Freedom of the press, secretive government actions and the ever present shadow of unintended consequences hang over it all, and the film reminds us that we the people are responsible for our own governance. Unfortunately, as has been proven many times before, we’re quick to outrage and even quicker to forget.

The Upside: Jeremy Renner does strong, grounded work; spectacular roster of supporting actors; story informs and infuriates

The Downside: Script jumps around a fare bit missing dramatic beats we know are there; pacing leaves the drama of some relationships in the lurch

On the Side: Both Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were in early discussions for the role of Gary Webb.

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