Though he has four theatrical features under his belt, director Michael Cuesta is perhaps best known for his work on TV series “Homeland” and “Six Feet Under,” and perhaps the worst one can say about his new feature, “Kill the Messenger,” is that it sometimes plays like a condensed version of a first-rate cable miniseries. Based on the life of investigative reporter Gary Webb, who sparked firestorms with his writing on links between the CIA, Nicaraguan Contras and the American crack-cocaine trade only to have his career destroyed in the media blowback, the film taps into far deeper, richer veins of material than it has the time to properly mine. It’s nonetheless a flinty, brainy, continually engrossing work that straddles the lines between biopic, political thriller and journalistic cautionary tale, driven by Jeremy Renner’s most complete performance since “The Hurt Locker.” Specialty box office should be healthy; post-screening debates and Google sessions should be fierce.
Unlike Russell Crowe, whose turn as an ink-stained wretch in “State of Play” saw him tamp down his leading-man charm to an almost penitential degree, Renner plays Webb as a dashing, naturally impatient sort of everyman. (Imagine Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward as a beer-drinking, motorcycle-riding father of three who’s probably been to his fair share of Pearl Jam concerts.) Working for the San Jose Mercury News in the mid-1990s, Webb publishes a piece on seizures of suspected drug dealers’ property by the DEA, only to find a spate of messages from a flirtatious drug trafficker’s moll (Paz Vega) waiting for him at his desk the next day.
Meeting up with her, Webb gets hold of a confidential file on Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez), a former Nicaraguan trafficker with ties to the Contras, enlisted by the DEA to help bring down notorious kingpin “Freeway” Ricky Ross (Michael K. Williams). The document quickly leads Webb down a rabbit hole that sees him travel to Central America, Washington, D.C., South Central L.A.’s crack killing fields, and Ross’ prison cell. When he emerges, he pens the Mercury News’ three-part 1996 expose “Dark Alliance,” which alleges that Nicaraguan Contras (trained and supported by the CIA to fight the country’s socialist government) were funded by the traffickers directly responsible for the explosion of crack cocaine in America’s inner cities.
This swashbuckling investigation sequence flits by rapidly, at times a bit too rapidly to fully grasp the significance of each new player or parcel of information. But the scenes are enlivened by Cuesta’s cast of topnotch actors recruited for what are essentially one-scene roles. Williams supplies a memorable few minutes as Ross, reminiscing about the crack business’s inversion of the laws of economics: “I couldn’t sell it fast enough to keep up with the supply.” Michael Sheen shows up as a squirrely D.C. insider with some of the most memorably awful hair this side of “American Hustle.” And best of all, Andy Garcia brings a serpentine serenity to his role as jailed Nicaraguan majordomo Norwin Meneses, a gentleman-criminal held in such high esteem that his fellow inmates instinctively clear the prison yard to allow him to practice his golf swing.
Webb receives hints that there might be repercussions for pursuing the story (as one government official notes in a not-at-all-reassuring promise, “we would never hurt your family.”) Yet the real trouble comes from much closer to home. Incensed about being scooped by a small paper on a hometown story, Los Angeles Times editors assign no fewer than 17 reporters to the Gary Webb beat. Other papers find plenty of anonymous Agency sources to refute the piece. And as the article spreads far and wide on the Internet — “Dark Alliance” was arguably one of the first viral news stories — Webb finds himself consistently being asked to defend allegations that he never actually made, his work attracting just as much misinterpretation as condemnation.
If ever there were a film that could benefit from extensive onscreen footnotes, “Kill the Messenger” is one, yet Cuesta never dwells on the particular strengths and flaws of Webb’s journalism. Indeed, the director seems a little too desperate to keep the film from devolving into “spinach cinema” infotainment, keeping the pacing brisk and intimate, shooting with handheld cameras from tight angles that suggest a Paul Greengrass spy tale as much as a process-heavy procedural. Gradually, the pic shifts its focus to the strain this scrutiny causes on Webb’s personal life. Increasingly marginalized at work, he’s transferred to the paper’s sleepy Cupertino bureau, and dalliances from his past drive wedges between Webb and wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt) as well as his eldest son (Lucas Hedges).
As the film’s title grows ever more prophetic — Webb committed suicide in 2004 — the strengths of Renner’s performance start to come to the fore. Without making him a martyr for J-school do-gooders, Renner finds in Webb a querulous, ultimately heartbreaking example of a natural troublemaker who found in journalism what he believed to be a safe, righteous outlet for his anti-authoritarian impulses. Early scenes see him bouncing around his office listening to the Clash as he bashes out his pieces; later on, his head droops further and further downward as his professional protectors fall away one by one, finally delivering a valedictory speech that functions as a eulogy.
Written by Peter Landesman (adapted from Nick Schou’s “Kill the Messenger” and Webb’s own “Dark Alliance”), the film is immensely sympathetic to Webb while still allowing the character his share of personal flaws. Yet by never delving deep into the specific criticisms of his work — whose greatest sins were probably overstatement and presumption — the film may ultimately do him a disservice. In a post-Julian Assange era, when an organization like TMZ can bring the biggest professional sports league in the country into disrepute, the idea that a flawed yet well-intentioned journalist should suffer so mightily for calling attention to such an explosive subject feels even more inexplicable and tragic. Acknowledgement of his failings would do little to change that.
(Full disclosure: Leo Wolinsky, a former Los Angeles Times editor portrayed by Dan Futterman in the film, was an editor of Daily Variety between 2009-10. I worked under him during that time.)