Two-time Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy) leads an all-star cast in a dramatic thriller based on the remarkable true story of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb. Webb stumbles onto a story which leads to the shady origins of the men who started the crack epidemic on the nation’s streets…and further alleges that the CIA was aware of major dealers who were smuggling cocaine into the U.S., and using the profits to arm rebels fighting in Nicaragua. Despite warnings from drug kingpins and CIA operatives to stop his investigation, Webb keeps digging to uncover a conspiracy with explosive implications. His journey takes him from the prisons of California to the villages of Nicaragua to the highest corridors of power in Washington, D.C. – and draws the kind of attention that threatens not just his career, but his family and his life.
It’s rare, but sometimes a major newsworthy story is actually able to break through and grab the public conscious. It’s more common for these stories to be sidelined by unfounded or unwarranted speculation into the people involved. Think of Ferguson, or the Trayvon Martin shooting, or Edward Snowden. The people are juicier targets.
Even though Kill the Messenger is set in the mid-90s, a similar culture enveloped journalist Gary Webb following the publication of “Dark Alliance,” a piece detailing CIA involvement in creating a demand for crack in the U.S. Before his piece’s publication, he’s repeatedly warned by CIA officials and drug dealers alike to drop the story. Once it’s published, though, a combination of government agents and his media peers begin to dismantle Webb’s life, pulling out every skeleton in his closet and threatening his professional and personal lives.
The government going after Webb is disturbing enough. It’s the onslaught from Webb’s peers, though, that makes the story gut-churning. From the film’s point of view, the reaction was professional jealousy run amok. Reporters and editors from bigger publications, namely the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times especially, were upset that a reporter from a smaller publication (the San Jose Mercury News) scooped them on this colossal of a story. When the CIA finally admitted that Webb’s articles were true a few years later, most media outlets buried the news.
At the center of the film is Jeremy Renner, who finally gets a meaty role after spending the last few years working in various franchises and thankless action roles. He digs into Webb, creating a complicated but determined man in spite of the script’s tendencies to create as positive an image of Webb as possible. It’s good that he’s able to anchor the film; the rest of the cast seems large on paper, but many of them are limited to one or two scenes. They’re all talented – they include standouts such as Rosemarie DeWitt, Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead – but frame for frame, this is Renner’s film.
As a biopic, Messenger does veer toward convention at times. Thankfully, it also manages to avoid clichés, such as a scene that finds Webb being loudly applauded by a room full of his peers as he prepares to give a speech – only to reveal the applause is a daydream, and the roomful of peers are offering only a smattering of polite applause. Touches like that help make Messenger a better film, and a killer vehicle for Renner.