This well-meaning, based-on-a-true-story thriller trips into more than a few pot holes. It’s also oversold and under-reported. But Kill the Messenger flies high on the power of Jeremy Renner’s all-stops-out performance as journalist Gary Webb. In 1996, Webb, on staff at the San Jose Mercury News, broke a story that made global headlines by charging the CIA for using Nicaraguan rebels to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. in exchange for raising funds to covertly support the contras. Though the story had been told before, it was Webb who tied the CIA action directly to a crack epidemic among America’s urban poor, especially in South Central Los Angeles.
In the Internet age of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and other whistleblowers, Webb’s ink-stained investigative reporter may seem crushingly retro. He shouldn’t. The dark alliances at the heart of Kill the Messenger are alive and well and ever ready to send out digital shock waves. Director Michael Cuesta (Homeland) uses a script by Peter Landesman to create an All the President’s Men vibe of creeping paranoia. It’s not only back-handed CIA threats that rankle this dogged reporter (“We would never hurt your family, Mr. Webb”), it’s jealous media comrades, including those at the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, who work overtime to discredit Webb’s story, partly because they didn’t get it first.
The movie could shed more light on the flaws in Webb’s reporting and the deceits inherent in the CIA reaction. Instead, it hurtles around drumming up tension. Still, when Kill the Messenger stays life-sized and resolutely human, the effect is devastating. The scandals evoked, including Webb’s infidelity, take a toll on the man, his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt, excellent) and their three children, especially the eldest son (Lucas Hedges). Renner’s expressive face becomes a road map that traces Webb’s tragic arc from local hero to national pariah. Flaws aside, Kill the Messenger inspires a moral outrage that feels disconcertingly timely.