Kill the Messenger is a fascinating story in search of a good movie. It’s ultimately torpedoed by an undisciplined script that struggles to combine the source material from two different books. Jeremy Renner does terrific work with some juicy Oscar bait, but the two stories never blend into a persuasive narrative. The result is film that doesn’t know if it’s a political thriller or a long-winded First Amendment screed.
Gary Webb’s story is both tragic and heroic. In 1996, Webb (Renner), a fearless reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, single-handedly exposed the CIA’s complicity in funding Contra rebels in Nicaragua through the unfettered influx of crack cocaine into the United States. These revelations caused an explosion of controversy in the African American community, whose leaders accused the federal government of contributing to drug addiction and violence in America’s inner cities. The CIA countered by undermining the credibility of Webb’s sources, as well as subjecting him to a relentless smear campaign. The personal price paid by Webb was catastrophic. He lost everything; his job, his family and, ultimately, his life to an apparent suicide.
The thrilling first half of Kill the Messenger follows Webb’s obsessive pursuit of a very dangerous truth. Not surprisingly, most of his sources were on the periphery of a rampant ‘80s drug culture that was crushing urban centers in the United States. Webb chases leads through slums, prisons and courtrooms before he finally breaks the case. These procedural scenes are riveting, evoking a similar vibe to All the President’s Men, where each piece of new information leads the hero deeper and deeper into a massive cover-up. The pace is brisk and the tension is palpable, as Renner commands every scene with a mix of ideological fanaticism and pitiable naïveté. It’s clear to everyone, even his editor (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and boss (Oliver Platt), that Webb is drowning, but they’re too seduced by the allure of ‘the big story’ to throw him a lifeline.
After the big story breaks, however, Kill the Messenger loses sight of the exciting Contra storyline. Instead, it plunges headlong into Webb’s turgid struggle to keep the newspaper industry from burying his story. It might be the truth of what actually happened, but it’s not absorbing cinema, and feels comparatively weak after the film’s gripping start. Director Michael Cuesta does a reasonably good job building a sense of impending doom, and the film has a gritty look befitting a reckless gumshoe like Webb. Still, the second half of Messenger mutates into a lethargic re-tread of The Insider, locked into family melodrama and repeated story beats.
Indeed, most of Messenger’s failings can be traced back to Peter Landesman’s script. To be fair, he was placed in the untenable position of adapting a single script from two different books. He’s clearly trying to maintain the political-thriller elements of Nick Schou’s book Kill the Messenger, while still paying respect to Webb’s personal story from the man’s own book, Dark Alliance. Sadly, Landesman fails to achieve the precarious mix, resulting in a script that loses its propulsive storyline in the middle and limps to a recycled finish.
After all the major revelations of the Contra case and Webb’s giddy pursuit of the truth, we learn nothing new in the final hour. We feel the pain of Webb’s inevitable self-destruction, but instead of achieving some sense of moral poignancy, the script just slathers on the righteous indignation and expects us to be appropriately outraged. We are outraged, but we aren’t particularly invested in the outcome. Simply put, this is a painfully linear script that needed to keep the Contra storyline alive in order to infuse Webb’s personal story with more energy.
If you can imagine Nixon resigning in the middle of All the President’s Men, with the remainder of the film dedicated to Woodward and Bernstein fighting their editor, you have a pretty good idea how Kill the Messenger plays out. It’s not a bad film, but it is a sloppy one that squanders a firecracker start and a terrific performance from Jeremy Renner. As Gary Webb ponders whether to publish his inflammatory story, he is advised that, “Some stories are just too true to tell.” Such is the case with some scripts, which, in their admirable haste to relate the truth, forget the requirements of compelling storytelling. If you want to find the heart of Webb’s story, you’ll have to dig a little deeper.
— J.R. Kinnard