Jeremy Renner doesn’t put much movie-star mustard on his performance as a newspaper reporter in “Kill the Messenger,” and that’s one of the reasons the work is so strong.
Sure, he’s two-time Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner, and he can’t really disguise his handsomeness and his charisma beneath the questionable facial hair and the mid-1990s wardrobe, but Renner’s performance as investigative journalist Gary Webb is one of the more authentic portrayals of an old-fashioned, telephone-working, note-taking, go-to-where-the-story-takes-you reporter in recent memory.
Webb’s story is a tragedy on a number of levels. (I’ll withhold specific spoilers about Webb’s real life so as not to give away too much about this fictionalized version of true events.) He was a hero and then he wasn’t, and the toll his work took on his family was devastating.
Director Michael Cuesta lays out this fact-based drama as if he’s seen “All the President’s Men” more than a few times, and that’s meant as a high compliment. (Cuesta is executive producer of Showtime’s “Homeland” and has directed numerous episodes, and we see touches of that series as well, especially in the scenes where Webb goes to Central America and finds himself in genuine peril while pursuing the story.)
Unlike Woodward and Bernstein, Renner’s Gary Webb wasn’t working at an elite-level newspaper. In the mid-1990s, he was the lead investigative journalist at the thoroughly respectable but decidedly second-tier San Jose Mercury News, a paper that wasn’t much concerned with national or international news when Webb was handed the lead of a lifetime — an accidentally leaked grand jury transcript that seemed to indicate the CIA was aligned with Nicaraguan rebels who were raising hundreds of millions of dollars by bringing drugs into the United States.
It’s a bombshell so big it takes much effort for Webb to persuade his editor (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and his publisher (Oliver Platt) there’s even a shred of truth to it. Finally, he gets their blessing.
Andy Garcia has a juicy cameo as Norwin Meneses, an imprisoned drug lord in Nicaragua who gives Webb just enough information to keep the wheels turning. Michael Sheen shows up as a government official who meets with Webb at one of those hide-in-plain-sight Washington, D.C., locales where guys are always looking this way and that while talking to someone they shouldn’t even be talking to.
Once the story is published, Webb is hailed as a hero. He’s courted by shows such as “60 Minutes” and “Dateline,” and his family celebrates with champagne and hugs. Why, he’s even named Journalist of the Year.
But this movie is called “Kill the Messenger,” and it’s as much about what happens to Webb after the story breaks than it is about his investigative heroics.
The CIA goes after Webb. Other media outlets parse every claim in his stories. He’s the recipient of vague and not-so-vague threats from various operatives.
Although Cuesta is generally faithful to the real-life timeline (“Kill the Messenger” is based on two nonfiction books, including one written by Webb), many of the scenes depicting the persecution of Webb come across as a bit too melodramatic. It’s a checklist of familiar sequences, from the middle-of-the-night, well-intentioned phone calls (“You have no idea what you’re getting into”) to the mysterious car parked just around the corner from the house, to the conference room scene where Gary realizes his editor, his publisher and the company attorneys are all getting cold feet and he bellows, “You’re questioning MY ETHICS?!”
Paz Vega overdoes it as a sexy source who plants kisses on Gary’s cheek as she’s handing him government documents. Ray Liotta makes a cameo that’s more confusing than enlightening. Rosemarie DeWitt seems to be the go-to choice to play beleaguered and yet not entirely sympathetic wives these days (see “Men, Women & Children”).
At times “Kill the Messenger” goes to actual news footage. We see Ted Koppel commenting on Webb’s reporting, and Al Sharpton and Maxine Waters at news conferences and rallies, demanding to know if the CIA really looked the other way as crack cocaine flooded the streets of South Central Los Angeles and other impoverished neighborhoods across the country.
The Washington Post, the L.A. Times and other media were more focused on discrediting Webb’s reporting than in pursuing the “Dark Alliance” he wrote about. It took years for Webb to be vindicated.
“Kill the Messenger” is a solid tribute to his work. It’s too bad it wasn’t filmed and released in 1999.
Focus Features presents a film directed by Michael Cuesta and written by Peter Landesman. Running time: 112 minutes. Rated R (for language and drug content).