The tragedy of Gary Webb, the ill-fated journalist hero of “Kill the Messenger”, was that he was not exactly in a good position when he happened to get a big chance for the scoop of his lifetime which ultimately shattered his life and career in the end. If he had been in a more advantageous position with more supports and resources from his peers and other journalists who should have stood by him, he might have survived his plight – and he might have been saved from his eventual doom.
In 1996, Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), who worked as a reporter of the San Jose Mercury News at that time, drew considerable attentions and criticisms through the series of his articles on the connection between the drug trade in LA and a covert CIA operation, and the first half of the movie gives us a fictional account of how he came across that unbelievable scoop. While continuing his reporting job on a local drug business, Webb is approached by an arrested drug dealer’s girlfriend on one day, and she gives him the first lead for his investigation, a sensitive government file which reveals a hidden connection between the US government and a major cocaine/crack supplier in US.
After finding that this supplier in question, who is now a major witness covered and protected by the government, was associated with CIA, Webb keeps digging into this matter, and he eventually unearths a dirty deal between CIA and the Contra rebels in Nicaragua during the 1980s. For preventing Nicaragua from becoming another communist threat after Cuba, the Reagan administration sought for any other possible way to fund the Contra rebels due to the domestic opposition to direct funding, and CIA let the Contra rebels get the money for weapons and other supplies through the massive supply of drugs into US, which accordingly caused serious drug problems around the poor neighborhoods of American major cities.
As Webb gets more information in Nicaragua and Washington D.C., it also becomes apparent that some people are not so pleased about what he is doing. A high-ranking government official he meets in Washington D.C. still does not want talk directly about what he failed to stop a long time ago, and Webb soon faces the pressure from the US government. While paranoia begins to grow inside him, he becomes more convinced that he must print his story no matter what will happen, and Anna Simmons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt), his bosses in the San Jose Mercury News, give him a full support while also being cautious about their situation.
When his articles are printed on the paper at last and shake the whole nation, this initially looks like a proud journalistic triumph for Webb and everyone around him in the San Jose Mercury News, but then it is followed by a long, gloomy downfall for Webb. While the public relations guys at CIA begin their damage control, many other journalists of more prominent newspapers such the Los Angeles Times are pretty pissed about how they get themselves beaten by a minor newspaper reporter, and they start to focus more on the other thing: the legitimacy of Webb’s articles.
Unfortunately, Webb’s articles are pretty easy to be smeared and criticized thanks to several reasons beside his unreliable sources who instantly change their words after his articles were printed, and things quickly become nightmarish for Webb. Constantly blasted by other newspapers, he becomes more frustrated day by day as the media pays attention more to him rather than what he tries to report, and his relationship with his family also gets strained as reflected by a small hurtful moment when Webb has to talk about his old personal fault to his teenage son.
Around that point, the director Michael Cuesta tries too hard to hold our attention as his movie becomes incoherent in its overall tone. Although the thriller mood pumped up during the first half serves well Webb’s investigation process, this blatant approach does not mesh well with the somber, despairing second half, and the frequent insertion of archive footage and rough flashback shots throughout the film sometimes looks like a distracting overkill. The screenplay by Peter Landseman, which is based on two non-fiction books respectively written by Nick Schou and Gary Webb, delivers the message as intended, but it spins its wheel in its jumpy depiction of Webb’s downward spiral, and the ending particularly feels weak along with the following lackluster epilogue.
Despite its notable flaws including the under-utilization of its good supporting cast, the movie works mainly because of the intense lead performance by Jeremy Renner, who previously impressed us a lot with his breakthrough performance in Kathryl Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film “The Hurt Locker” (2008). While capturing well Webb’s focused determination, Renner also does not flinch from showing Webb’s abrasive sides which partially contribute to his ordeal. Webb could just step back a little as his colleagues tactfully advise to him, but he stubbornly continues to go on his way as ruining several professional relationships, and that results in the irreversible damage on his journalistic career as well as his life.
Uneven and heavy-handed at times, “Kill the Messenger” often stumbles, but its bitter chronicle of Webb’s rise and fall is worthwhile to watch for its topic still relevant at present, and the movie is mostly held well together by Renner’s compelling performance which is one of better turns in his career. As told in the epilogue, Webb never got a chance to clarify his tarnished reputation even when what he reported was fully exposed in public later, and we can say that they surely did a heck of job on him. Telling a truth sometimes comes with a price for that, and it was really unfortunate for Webb to realize belatedly how big it was in his case.