The best scene in “Kill the Messenger” arrives during its credits. Home video footage of journalist Gary Webb, the former San Jose Mercury News reporter whose investigations into the CIA’s relationship to crack cocaine dealings in the U.S. ultimately led to his downfall, show us a weary man standing tall in the face of impossible odds. That resilience didn’t last forever: In 2003, after the government publicly discredited Webb’s findings and he could no longer find work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist took his own life.
The relationship between Webb’s convictions about his work and its potential to destroy him form a fascinating paradox at the center of the story. The dramatized version only goes so far: In director Michael Cuesta’s sullen portrait of Webb’s muckraking quest and eventual undoing, Jeremy Renner plays the reporter with credible gravitas that conveys his increasing frustration but falls short of giving it fresh life.
Peter Landesman’s straightforward script (which draws from Nick Schou’s book and Webb’s own accounts) doesn’t take long to establish the scenario. In the midst of reporting on wealthy criminals steamrolled by an overly aggressive justice system, Webb receives a tip that an incarcerated drug dealer actually worked for the government. Stitching together a handful of tips, the reporter arrives at the conclusion that the CIA actually helped smuggle cocaine into the country in order to aid the financial stability of rebel factions in Nicaragua. The government swoops in to poke holes in Webb’s findings, and while his trenchant editor (Oliver Platt) attempts to support his writer, ultimately the situation becomes unsustainable. “Kill the Messenger” pairs Webb’s gruff encounters between his editors and government agents with more tender scenes as he attempts to console his wife (Rosemaire DeWitt) and their teenage son (Matthew Linz). While these scenes are meant to personalize Webb’s conundrum, they have a false, melodramatic tone that simplifies the situation at hand.
The issue of credibility percolates throughout “Kill the Messenger.” A tense meeting with CIA officials, which concludes with a veiled threat against his family, feels drab instead of suspenseful. Webb continues to assert his responsibility to his story while everyone around him expresses their uncertainties, but these scenes have a listlessness that holds them down. As Nathan Johnson’s moody score runs alongside one shrill exchange after another, there’s a recurring sense that Webb is screwed even before we get to that point. The movie’s atmosphere would be suffocating — which fits the material — if the drama weren’t so routine.
But Renner exists above the limited scope of the narrative. His steely-eyed expression hints at a dangerous fixation on following each lead even as his professional stability evaporates around him. He’s so keyed into Webb’s conundrum that by the time we see the face of the actual subject at the movie’s conclusion, he’s already familiar to us. Among the actor’s best roles since “The Hurt Locker,” Renner’s performance here carries the full weight of Webb’s troubled legacy. He makes the movie into a watchable paean to the travails of reporting the truth at all costs.
However, since “Kill the Messenger” focuses less on the target of Webb’s reporting than the man himself, it suffers from avoiding the darkest moments of his descent. Abandoned by his publication and shamed by media reports, he was a victim of his virtues. But the movie spares us the dreary path he continued to follow until he ran out of options. Even as it celebrates the spirit of committed journalism that rises above the powerful forces designed to contain it, “Kill the Messenger” displays the same anesthetized quality that Webb’s dedication to his job was meant to counteract. Renner is a different story.
“Kill the Messenger” opens nationwide on Friday.