'Kill the Messenger': Film Review

Jeremy Renner boosts a patchy drama about a reporter who takes on the CIA

Jeremy Renner stars in Michael Cuesta's fact-based drama about a reporter who exposed the CIA's role in the Central American cocaine business

Kill the Messenger is an All the President's Men with an unhappy ending, a cautionary tale about the potential downside of crusading journalism. Centering on the deepening woes that afflicted the newspaperman who effectively broke the story of the CIA's involvement in the Central American cocaine business, Michael Cuesta's first big-screen feature since his major television success with Homeland feels like a mid-level gritty downer of a 1970s movie, even though it's set in the mid-1990s.

This may appeal to some but not to most prospective viewers, who, in this Internet age of widespread document revelation, might not get too worked up about the flawed machinations of old-school journalism. This means that one of Jeremy Renner's most strongly felt performances will likely be little seen until the film hits home viewing markets.

The Iran-Contra scandal was already decade-old news and Ronald Reagan was long out of office when San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb started sniffing around for verification that Nicaraguan rebels with CIA backing were smuggling drugs into the U.S. — and, specifically, flooding coke into South Central Los Angeles — to raise major scratch for the anti-Sandinistas.

Already a Pulitzer Prize winner for general reporting, Webb, as portrayed by Renner, seems like something of a rebel hippie despite living in a typical suburban home with his wife, Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt), and their two sons; he's into motorcycles and is on a short leash with Sue after an indiscretion at his previous posting in the Midwest.

In fact, it's the allure of a sexy woman that starts him on the path to his big story. Flirtatious bombshell Coral (Paz Vega) passes him an eye-opening grand jury transcript mentioning the CIA-drug smuggling connection, information that surprises the attorney (Tim Blake Nelson) for a big-time L.A. crack dealer (Michael Kenneth Williams), gives serious pause to the government prosecutor (Barry Pepper) and results in the case being dropped, so that the incriminating testimony won't go public.

Given the lowdown by a government rat (Yul Vazquez) and believing that “Bad guys are usually more honest than good guys” — a post-'60s rebel byword if ever there was one — Webb gets the okay from his editor, Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and publisher, Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt), to fly to Central America for an on-the-record interview with imprisoned drug lord Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia).

In relative terms, Meneses still lives high on the hog, enjoying the use of golf equipment in the prison yard, accoutered in a shabby version of his undoubted former flair and retaining the fulsome respect of the other inmates. Thanks to the deep-dish information he provides about Oliver North and the whole smuggling operation, as well as to the aura of inextinguishable elegance that Garcia brings to the role, this scene is one of the film's highlights — a beautifully written and acted interlude between two men on a confidential wavelength.

Despite ultra-cliched warnings by a National Security Council member (Michael Sheen) that “You have no idea what you're getting into” and from a CIA guy that “You're getting into some sensitive areas,” Webb goes ahead with the revelatory story, a three-parter entitled “Dark Alliance.” It makes big waves and incenses proud papers such as the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times over having been scooped. Their anger makes them perhaps more willing to believe the tips they start getting from government sources that Webb's story was misguided, insufficiently sourced and, at the heart of things, wrong. Official pressure is brought to bear on the reporter's bosses, the Post runs a story insisting that “evidence is lacking” and the press in general gangs up on Webb, whose undeniable character flaws are put in the spotlight and who himself comes to suspect he's being stalked.

As things go from bad to worse for Webb, at least a couple of incidental truths come into focus regarding a journalistic career devoted to researching risky investigative exposes. First, it's really not a good idea to have a family; your spouse is going to be annoyed about your never being home and your total preoccupation with work. It's unlikely Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would have been able to do what they did if they'd been married at the time. Second, it's smart to be employed at a paper that will back you up. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee stood by his young reporters no matter what confidential insiders said to him about Watergate being a tempest in a teapot.

Being a relatively small paper unaccustomed to so much attention, the Mercury News couldn't handle the heat of the spotlight so that, by the time Webb received a big journalism award for his series, the honoree was already being pushed out the door. Webb's superiors finally wilt in the face of the barrage of criticism over the particulars of Webb's story, and one problem with the script by Peter Landesman (writer-director of Parkland) is that it never clarifies whether the complaints were just nitpicking or if Webb's reporting actually did contain some serious problems.

Still, sympathy remains entirely on the man's side. His mid-teenage son, Ian (a very good Lucas Hedges), loves his dad but needs him around more and is compelled to ask embarrassing questions about the woman with whom he strayed. When Webb is forced to move out and becomes, at last, overwhelmed by the forces aligned against him, you can really feel him beginning the long slide from determination to prevail to lack of equilibrium and, finally, to professional and emotional limbo.

Ultimately, it's unclear what the moral of this story is. Was Webb a hero for getting the goods on one more aspect of government malfeasance? Was his sacrifice, in the end, actually worth it? How does one weigh the risks of going up against the full firepower of an administration, the CIA, the FBI and the journalistic establishment versus the well-being of your family, not to mention your own continued existence on this planet?

Whatever the answers, Renner brings the man alive in all his pertinent aspects. Looking scruffy and game, Renner's Gary Webb is the kind of journalist every paper needs (or needed) to have: a scrappy, disheveled, pen-and-notebook common-man type unafraid of sticking it to the big boys when they misbehave. Much as he loves his family, he has an instinctive bulldog grip that won't permit him to let go until his prey is subdued. Renner appears completely immersed in his role and when the clouds of doubt accumulate and the man becomes a professional pariah, it's a painful thing to see.

Like Garcia, Ray Liotta socks over one intense scene as a CIA guy who confesses his activities to the reporter. The hand-held camera is used in typical in-your-face fashion to ramp up “intensity.”

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Pepper, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Paz Vega, Michael Kenneth Williams, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Andy Garcia, Lucas Hedges, Richard Schiff, Josh Close, Robert Patrick, Yul Vazquez, Brett Rice, Dan Futterman
Screenwriter: Peter Landesman, based on the books Dark Alliance by Gary Webb and Kill the Messenger by Nick Schou
Producers: Scott Stuber, Naomi Despres, Jeremy Renner
Executive producers: Peter Landesman, Pamela Abdy, Don Handfield, Michael Bederman
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: John Paino
Costume designer: Kimberly Adams
Editor: Brian A. Kates
Music: Nathan Johnson

Rated R, 111 minutes