“Kill the Messenger” is a rallying cry for old-school investigative journalism, warts and all. Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) was a prize-winning reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who, in a three-part series in 1995 and 1996, outlined how the CIA-backed contras made money in the '80s smuggling drugs during their fight against the democratically elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua while the CIA looked the other way. His further contention, that the drug-smuggling fueled the crack epidemic in America’s inner cities, specifically in South Central Los Angeles, was seized upon by black activists.
But this is not an “All the President’s Men”-style success story. Webb’s thinly sourced reporting was attacked by major papers like The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, which, according to the film, turned on Webb because they resented being scooped. Even his own newspaper ended up re-reporting and distancing themselves from Webb’s series. Disgraced, unable to find work in journalism, he died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds in 2004.
One of the problems with “Kill the Messenger,” directed by Michael Cuesta and written by Peter Landesman, is that, although it is firmly in Webb’s corner, it never details the arguments of his opposition. Essentially his opponents are portrayed as spoilsports out to, well, kill the messenger. There are also too many scenes where people in the know caution Webb with thudders like “You have no idea what you’re getting into.”
What hits home is Renner’s performance, which gives full weight both to Webb’s fierce, abiding love for journalism and his despair when his livelihood – his reason for being – is trashed. It’s a tragedy, doubly so since the core of Webb’s allegations remains unchallenged today. Grade: B (Rated R for language and drug content.)