Behind every good scandal there is a good journalist. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein gave us Watergate while muckraker Nick Davies of The Guardian uncovered the phone hacking scandal that proved the News of the World had ears and eyes in the cell phones of some very famous and powerful people. Lesser known is Gary Webb, an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News played by Jeremy Renner in the new film “Kill the Messenger.”
When we meet Webb he’s just broken the biggest story of his career. An exposé on the inequity of the justice system’s habit of stripping suspected drug dealers of their homes and vehicles, whether they are proven guilty or not. The article attracts the attention of Coral Baca (Paz Vega), the girlfriend of a drug dealer. She contacts Webb with some the potentially explosive information that the government has drug dealers on their payroll.
Following the clues he travels to Nicaragua to meet drug lords (Andy Garcia) and crooked bankers (Brett Rice) and to Washington to meet DC insiders (Michael Sheen) to piece together the story of CIA involvement in the smuggling of cocaine into the U.S., and how that money was laundered and used arm rebels fighting in Nicaragua. His articles won him acclaim, but also started a campaign to discredit him by some very powerful people. “Some stories,” he is warned, “are too true to tell.”
Crusading journalists make good characters. They says cool tings like, “The bad guys are usually more honest than the good guys,” put themselves in peril and refuse to take no for an answer. Renner embodies the swagger necessary to play Webb the journalist and, as things fall a part for him professionally and personally, is suitably hangdog. Why then, is “Kill the Messenger” such an endurance test to sit through?
It starts off well enough, piecing the clues together, building to the aha moment when the complicated clues begin to make sense as a whole, but then loses momentum when the movie becomes more about lionizing Webb than it does following the Nicaragua story. Thrown into the mix is a sad indictment of what passes for courage in the journalism racket, which only serves to move Webb closer to the glow of the heroic spotlight.
Renner and the supporting cast, including Rosemarie DeWitt (who is good but wasted in an under-written “wife” role), Tim Blake Nelson as a lawyer whose favorite word is “allegedly” and Ray Liotta (who has an all-too-brief cameo) perform admirably but are weighed down by the script. Webb would have reported the facts and only the facts and “Kill the Messenger” would be a better movie if it took his example and stuck to the truth without the prosthetizing on journalistic ethics.