It was a mystery that reporter Gary Webb would have jumped on: a man who'd made powerful enemies allegedly committing suicide with two gunshots to the head. The tragedy is that Webb was the deceased. Michael Cuesta's earnest, ire-inducing Kill the Messenger is a David-and-Goliath story where truth is the slingshot — a fragile weapon that needs to score a fatal hit before the big guy gets mad. Miss, and you'll get crushed.
The giant is the CIA. In 1996, Webb published a thunderbolt piece in the San Jose Mercury News connecting the facts in a conspiracy that linked the government to the Nicaraguan Contras to the crack dealers of South Central Los Angeles. As the movie has it, after a tip from a sexy informant named Coral (Paz Vega) trying to keep her boyfriend (Aaron Farb) out of prison, Webb (Jeremy Renner) follows the dots to reveal that the CIA knowingly allowed the Contras to use drug profits to fund their joint struggle against the liberal Sandinistas — and even let them land their planes of cocaine at an Air Force base in Texas.
“Have you written that story?” teases Coral. He hadn't. No one had. And the big players at the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times were peeved that this nobody from nowheresville had scooped them. Even Webb's editor (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and executive editor, Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt), were uncomfortable that the Mercury News had reached above their station. “We don't do international,” Ceppos frets.
Webb was right, though the CIA wouldn't admit it for another two years. If Kill the Messenger ended when Webb's article broke, it'd be a scrappy celebration of an underdog done good — a true American Dream, built on the American nightmare of crack addiction in Watts. That's certainly how he saw it: Webb was a hardworking father of three who'd proven his investigative chops. Yet in the two-year gap between his piece hitting print and the government's public mea culpa, Webb's career was trashed. No one threatens him or his family with violence. (In fact, one CIA man creepily overcompensates by assuring, “We'd never threaten your children, Mr. Webb.”) Instead, they destroy the man by destroying his credibility — and to an investigative journalist like Webb, the two are the same. This comes as a surprise to Renner's Webb. He's at once cynical yet childishly naive about the power of the press, certain that the truth will protect him. When a D.C. insider (Michael Sheen) warns him, “Some stories are just too true to tell,” he scoffs, “Bullshit!”
Webb's rivals at the other papers attack, not by denying the truth, but by exaggerating Webb's claims until they pop. His fellow news outlets, the cool-kids club he'd love to join, spin him into a whack job who thinks CIA spooks in trench coats are selling crack themselves in a conspiracy to destroy black neighborhoods.
It doesn't help Webb that the American public found the truth hard to understand. It's even hard to follow here in the film's fast-moving trot between courthouses and Central America; it's only clear that something interesting is happening from the “Aha!” excitement on Renner's face. When he digs out a deliciously dirty fact, he looks like a badger in blue jeans who's caught a fat snake. Sometimes it's a little hard to care about the particulars because it feels like we're playing catch-up.
Like Webb himself, Kill the Messenger is a little rumpled. Cuesta isn't out to impress us with slick tricks — he just cares about the facts, almost as if he fears that if the camerawork were prettier, the movie would look more like fiction. The film doesn't really get going until the midpoint, when Webb's article, “Dark Alliance,” drops like a bomb. There's a moment of stunned silence, and then the blowback tears him apart.
Webb is a great character, because he was — and still feels like — a real, flawed human being. Cuesta and screenwriter Peter Landesman don't elevate him into a hero. He's a hunter, and when his rivals at the New York Times scrutinize his past, he's made enough personal mistakes that he's easy to discredit. (So have we all — against the purity of truth, no one looks clean.) In Webb's case, he has a temper, he had a mistress, and when he gets spooked by stalkers outside his house, we know enough about the news cycle to scream, “Put down that gun and look normal!” What happens to him here is scary because the way it plays out is so familiar, and because we've bought into it ourselves every time we allow another stranger to be spun into a national joke.
For media junkies, Kill the Messenger plays like S&M porn: It hurts so good. Yet, when the sting fades, so does the film. It doesn't entirely engage, in part because it's so determined to correct the story that it can't let us explore it ourselves. When Webb gets paranoid and starts sounding crazy, the film doesn't allow us to ask if he's gone overboard. (Which, given the debate over his death, we need to do.) Instead, it's insistently sympathetic. Webb would have called it an editorial. But at least in defending his name, Kill the Messenger is also defending his mantra: “Don't let the assholes win.”