To use the parlance of journalism, ‘Kill the Messenger’ buries the lead. We first spend time getting to know impassioned San Francisco writer Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a real-life crusader for the San Jose Mercury News in the mid-’90s. After publishing a DEA-drug-seizing exposé, Webb finds himself drawn into a larger story involving Nicaraguan Contras, the CIA and the epidemic of crack cocaine.
It’s an explosive find, leading Webb to stroke his goatee, crank up The Clash’s ‘Know Your Rights’ on vinyl and hammer out a three-part story, in 1996, titled ‘Dark Alliance’ – one that became an early example of the internet’s viral impact. It’s here that director Michael Cuesta’s earnest drama becomes a more interesting ethics thriller à la ‘The Insider’, as Webb’s research is slowly debunked by embarrassed traditional newspapers, his family unravels, and the guy’s spirit fades.
Renner is magnificent in these latter scenes, reduced from king of the hill to besieged paranoiac, and you wish the movie gave him more Pacino-worthy moments to rage against his spineless colleagues. ‘Kill the Messenger’ comes down firmly on the side of Webb’s truth, so it’s unfortunate that his discoveries are only confirmed via the end credits. Missing from the action, too, is any hint of our hero’s demise by suicide in 2004. As the film stands, it’s not the whole story.