After making a couple of really interesting pictures a decade ago—the brilliant “L.I.E.” and the intriguing “Twelve and Holding”—Michael Cuesta ran into trouble with his big-screen efforts and turned increasingly to television as a showcase for his talent. But he returns triumphantly to cinemas with “Kill the Messenger,” a solid fact-based period piece about an investigative journalist whose career is ruined when he falls afoul of the CIA. Anchored by a vivid performance from Jeremy Renner, the picture is a welcome throwback to the days of activist Hollywood David-vs.-Goliath films, though—in line with the more realistic attitudes of the present—this time, the little guy doesn’t win.
Renner plays Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who, in the nineties, wrote a series of stories on the DEA’s seizure of the property of suspected drug dealers even in the absence of convictions. The pieces lead to his being contacted by Coral Baca (Paz Vega), the girlfriend of one such drug trafficker, who gives him an accidentally-released deposition that points to one Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez), who worked with the government to bring down a Los Angeles kingpin named Ricky Ross (Michael K. Williams), now imprisoned for pushing crack cocaine in the city. Using information from that deposition, Webb helps the lawyer for Coral’s boyfriend (Tim Blake Nelson) derail the government’s case by getting Blandon to admit on the stand that he’d been in cahoots with the CIA to import Nicaraguan crack into the U.S. so that the proceeds could be used to support the so-called Contras in their battle against the Sandinista regime. Further inquiries, including conversations with a reluctant government informant (Michael Sheen) and a Nicaraguan drug lord imprisoned in Latin America (Andy Garcia) lead him to write the 1996 articles, under the title “Dark Alliance,” that implicate the CIA, however unwittingly, in the epidemic of crack cocaine usage that enveloped America’s inner cities during the 1980s.
Cuesta lays out this portion of the film, adapted by Peter Landesman from Webb’s own book and Nick Schou’s review of the entire episode, with admirable clarity and energy, and Renner contributes a compelling portrait of a man driven by the dictates of his profession to follow the story wherever it leads, despite warnings that his reportage could have serious repercussions for himself and his family—concerned wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt), idolizing son Ian (Lucas Hedges), daughter Christine (Parker Douglas) and young son Eric (Matthew Lintz). And though Webb’s bosses at the paper—owner Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt) and editor Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)—are initially proud and supportive, their attitude gradually changes as other news outlets, obviously with the help of the Agency, raise questions not only about the accuracy of Webb’s stories but about his personal life—including an affair at a job earlier in Ohio, the revelation of which devastates Ian. Ultimately Webb is exiled to a small-town offshoot of the paper, and though a whistlebower (Ray Liotta) eventually appears—like a lesser Deep Throat—to assure him that his account was accurate, his professional and personal fortunes continue to deteriorate as his journalistic integrity comes under increasing fire. (Webb, as we’re informed in a typical pre-credits summing-up card, died in 2004 in what was officially ruled a suicide. Moreover, it’s noted that an Agency inspector general’s report upheld the essential thrust of his account—though it was largely ignored because at the time the press was consumed by the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal—and Schou’s book confirms the charges he leveled.)
“Kill The Messenger” benefits from the basic fascination of the story, which shares much of the same ethos of “All the President’s Men,” from Landesman’s intense, punchy script, and from a technical package—Sean Bobbitt’s expert cinematography, Brian A. Kates’ crisp editing, and the period visual package provided by production designer John Paino, art director Scott Anderson, set decorator Nicole LeBlanc and costume designer Kimberly Adams. But it mostly succeeds as a result of Cuesta’s committed but controlled direction, and performances that are strong across the board. Renner is the linchpin, offering a portrait of a flawed man whose naturally rebellious personality was both his great strength and his ultimate undoing. He even manages a concluding speech before a press club awards dinner that could have been cloying but instead comes across as heartfelt and affecting. Apart from the family members—among whom Hedges stands out—special mention should be made of Platt and Winstead, as colleagues who exhibit dedication in support of Webb until they begin to wilt under the glare of negative publicity. And the brief contributions—sometimes in a single scene—of talents like Sheen, Nelson, Williams, Liotta, and Richard Schiff (the latter as a Washington Post editor with ties to the CIA)—make a significant difference. One must especially single out Garcia, who cuts an imposingly insinuating figure as a drug lord who retains his suavity and power even in prison.
In an era when journalism itself seems to have fallen on bad days and government is, more insistently than ever, prosecuting leakers and those they give information, “Kill The Messenger” reminds us of the fact that we still have need of dedicated, determined reporters who dig up stuff, even if the result is an unpleasant message we’d prefer not to hear. It’s a point that some great movies made in the 1970s, and it deserves repeating today. Michael Cuesta has done so, admirably.