Part political thriller, part biopic and very much a condemnation of the way in which certain elements within the mainstream news media conspired to discredit the work of journalist Gary Webb in the mid-1990’s, Kill the Messenger is an engrossing if ultimately dispiriting tale about the price to be paid for daring to expose Government links to a drug smuggling operation that resulted in an influx of crack cocaine into America. The fact that Webb’s investigations as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News dares to challenge the hegemony of the big media players only results in his findings being undermined and the real issue – the epidemic of addiction that continues to plague many inner-city communities today and the role of CIA in allowing it to happen – being almost completely ignored.
As Webb, Jeremy Renner gives perhaps his best performance since The Hurt Locker, presenting Webb as a flawed, impatient, yet determined man with a clear moral compass. The epitome of cool, Webb drives a sports car, rides a vintage motorcycle and possesses a self-confidence that belies his status as a journalist for a newspaper that sits closer to the bottom of the media totem pole than the top. That is, of course, until Webb uncovers the relationship between the CIA, the Contras in Nicaragua and the crack cocaine trade. When Webb gains access to a confidential file on a Nicaraguan drug trafficker with links to the Contra rebels – courtesy of a supposed-to-be sexy but really rather strange gangster’s moll (Paz Vega) with her own agenda – he sets forth on a journey that takes him far beyond what he ever could have ever imagined. After visiting jailed drug kingpin Ricky Ross (Michael Kenneth Williams), Webb soon finds himself in Central America, Washington D.C. and the killing fields of South Central Los Angeles as he puts the pieces together. Webb’s investigations, which include another prison visit – this time with Nicaraguan kingpin Norwin Meneses – ultimately reveal what many at the time already suspected; that the Contras being trained and supported by the CIA to fight against the Nicaraguan government were funded by traffickers directly responsible for the explosion of crack cocaine in American cities. With authorities clearly aware of what was going on but turning a blind eye, the drug became so rampant that the likes of Ross “couldn’t sell it fast enough to keep up with the supply.”
Once the story hits the newsstands, the backlash soon follows. Whilst The CIA refutes every accusation, it is Webb’s so-called colleagues who set out to destroy him. Larger and, in their own mind at least, more ‘important’ newspapers such as The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times take umbrage at being out-scooped by a minor outlet such as the Mercury News and they set about tearing Webb’s story apart. Hell, at one point the LA Times has upwards of 15 journalists dedicated to discrediting Webb, all the while paying little heed to the wrongdoings that Webb has uncovered. Having helmed several episodes of TV’s Homeland, director Michael Cuesta has plenty of experience with this type of material and he keeps things moving along at a rapid clip, sometimes to the detriment of clarity given the large number of characters that flitter in and out of the narrative.
Key supporting roles include Rosemarie DeWitt as Webb’s wife Sue, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Webb’s duplicitous and disingenuous editor – a far cry from her object of obsession role as Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs the World – and Oliver Platt as the higher-up who also abandons Webb when the going gets tough. Meanwhile, Andy Garcia is a lot of fun as Meneses, a prisoner held in such high regard by his fellow inmates that he gets exclusive use of the exercise yard to practice his golf swing. Also in small roles are Barry Pepper and Tim Blake Nelson as lawyers on opposite sides of the courtroom and Michael Sheen as a Washington insider, while the likes of Ray Liotta and Robert Patrick are confined to blink-and-you-miss them moments. The screenplay by Peter Landesman is adapted from two books – Webb’s own Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion and Kill the Messenger by Nick Schou – and it is only upon learning that Webb committed suicide in 2004 that you realise the title of Schou’s book and the film are very literal indeed. Despite the frantic pacing, Kill the Messenger is an engaging and sobering examination of a man who pays the ultimate price in his quest for truth.