Imagine for a moment that in the midst of the War on Drugs in the 1980s, the U.S. Government turned a blind eye to the import of crack cocaine to American city streets—most specifically, Los Angeles—because the profits were going to fund the rebel Contras in Nicaragua. Now imagine that an investigative reporter broke this story in 1996. That’s the story behind Director Michael Cuesta’s true-life film Kill the Messenger. Well actually, that’s only half the story.
The first half of the film follows investigative reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) as he stumbles onto the unbelievable story that the U.S. Government—more specifically, the CIA—may have been complicit in the crack epidemic of the 1980s. In his report, he never specifically stated that the government was behind the problem, but they certainly weren’t trying to stop it. The drug profits were funneled to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, which was advantageous for the Regan administration since Congress had blocked direct support of the rebel faction. Webb’s story, “Dark Alliance,” was a bombshell in 1996 when it appeared in the San Jose Mercury News. The portion of the film dealing with Webb’s investigation is a gripping political thriller, but the story soon devolves into a tragedy as Webb’s life is consumed by the story and its opponents. The CIA works to cover its tracks and discredit Webb, while other, larger, newspapers that were scooped set out to tear Webb’s story apart. Soon, the national story becomes Webb himself and it destroys his life.
The film tells a very compelling story, but as the focus shifts away from Webb’s story and more toward his personal life, some of the details get a little glossed over. It’s revealed that at some point in the past, Webb cheated on his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt). It appears they’ve gotten past it, but the harsh glare of the national spotlight reopens old wounds and their marriage begins to crumble. When the pressure from other news organizations gets too great, his paper sidelines him and his obsession to find the truth only deepens. What’s so incredible about this story is that it was Webb’s own peers and colleagues in the press who were out to get him. Was it jealousy, embarrassment at getting scooped, or too close a relationship to the government? It seemed like it was a little bit of all of those, but the approach to the story needed a little more seasoning. It’s a tense drama, but it always felt like it was missing just that extra beat.
The cast is superb and delivers fantastic performances starting with Renner. He gives one of his strongest performances to date. DeWitt is great as his wife, Sue, while Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt shine as his editors. Andy Garcia makes a nice turn as a South American drug lord and the rest of the supporting cast adds color to the proceedings.
Ultimately, Kill the Messenger felt like it needed to be a little longer. The tale of getting the story, while definitely gripping, could have been even more so if given a bit more time to develop. The second half of the film felt a little disjointed, as if some of the scenes needed more time to breathe—things felt like they jumped around a bit. It’s a good film, but not as great as it could have been.