Investigative journalists aspire to one main goal, the importance of which cannot be exaggerated: whatever the consequences, they hold the powerful accountable. Putting their own necks on the line to uncover and report the truth, these brave men and women serve society in hopes that, because of their work, the guilty will be punished, justice will be carried out and their nation will emerge a better place. That’s the hope. But as Kill the Messenger, a searing thriller of the highest caliber, so forcefully articulates, it’s not always what happens.
To get an idea of the shameful fate that befell San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) in the late ’90s, first picture Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. But now, instead of being praised and awarded for what they wrote, imagine that their names are dragged through the mud and their careers ruined. And for good measure, the story that they gave so much for? By the time the truth comes out, it’s old news, and everyone has moved on to a bigger, sexier headline.
So it goes for Webb, who gets on the trail of something big when a drug dealer’s girlfriend (Paz Vega) hands him a Grand Jury testimony that implicates the CIA in a Nicaraguan cocaine smuggling ring. Determined to learn more, he enlists an “alleged” crack kingpin named Rick Ross (Michael K. Williams, hardly a creative choice, but he gets the job done) and his lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) to help him put the pieces together. Webb’s investigation leads him all the way to a Nicaraguan prison, and soon enough, he has one hell of a story on his hands: that ties exist between the CIA and cocaine smugglers, and that money made from selling crack cocaine on the streets of Los Angeles was then used to support Nicaraguan rebels.
Certain that the CIA will never say a word to him, Webb goes ahead and publishes the story, under the title “Dark Alliance.” The media response is immediate and fiery, and hearty congratulations are passed around the Mercury News. The truth is out there, and justice can run its course – or so they think at first. What Webb soon finds is that both government agencies and rival papers are gunning for him, intent on discrediting him before any lasting damage can be done to their reputations. And when your principal sources are shady drug dealers, covering your ass is difficult. Thanks to the drama-loving media, the story, incendiary though it was, has suddenly become less important than the flawed man who wrote it.
Director Michael Cuesta does a terrific job of capturing this shift, occasionally interweaving news footage and usually favoring intimate, hand-held shots that give Webb the impression of being some sort of reality TV star. The first half of Kill the Messenger plays like a traditional political thriller, with a cavalier Webb traversing the globe and chasing down leads, but when the focus moves to his personal life, Cuesta skillfully builds the tension and allows Renner to communicate his character’s escalating paranoia under the media’s unblinking eye.
That Kill the Messenger is able to fully lay out the complex story Webb sacrificed so much for and also explore the journalist’s personal life and innermost demons is the mark of a talented triumvirate. Cuesta pulls off an incredible balancing act behind the camera, ensuring that the tension never eases up and that exposition never bogs down the film’s righteous fury.
Meanwhile, Peter Landesman’s script spends enough time with Webb’s family (including a terrific Rosemarie DeWitt as his fatigued wife and an affecting Lucas Hedges as his son) to demonstrate how much he has to lose. Simultaneously, it explores Webb’s mindset enough that we understand why he could never drop the story. For Webb, a fervent believer in the idea that the truth will set you free, it’s too deep, too engrossing, too intoxicating to ever even consider walking away.
And Renner, who hasn’t been this electric to watch since The Hurt Locker, communicates that ardor in a powerhouse performance. When Webb is chasing down leads and digging to bring secrets to light, Renner gives him a playful swagger, a big-man-on-campus charm. When his story’s subject bites back, though, Renner’s performance grows sadder and darker. The actor practically dares you to look away as he depicts Webb being brought to his knees by a painful realization – that the road to his own personal Hell, paved with good intentions though it was, is a one-way street, and he’s already traveled too far down it to turn back. Watching his optimism bend and then break is nothing short of devastating.
Perhaps the most surprising part of Kill the Messenger is how hard it hits you. Even knowing the full story walking in, you’ll feel bruised and battered by the time the credits roll. I could hardly muster the strength to stand. This film is not an impartial documentation of events – Cuesta, Landesman and Renner are incensed, and rightly so, by Webb’s brutal fall from grace. Kill the Messenger will light your fire, too. It’s a brilliantly staged and acted powder keg of a thriller, one that illuminates a true American horror story and clamors for a closer examination of the government’s relationship with the press. In the age of whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, we cannot forget Gary Webb. Kill the Messenger‘s subject may be gone, but the moral outrage it provokes remains intensely relevant.