“Some stories are just too true to tell,” a character says in “Kill the Messenger.”
Words to the wise. Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is not wise.
Driven, yes. Persistent, yes. Dedicated, yes, as an investigative journalist in pursuit of an explosive story about cocaine profits being used to fund the CIA-backed Contra rebels during the Nicaraguan civil war of the 1980s, and the CIA turning a blind eye to the importation of that cocaine, which fueled the crack epidemic of the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Fearless, yes, until having gotten sideways with the government, in particular the CIA, he comes to know fear. He knows it when during a meeting with anonymous men in suits, one remarks calmly, “We’d never threaten your children, Mr. Webb.”
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What we have here is a taut political thriller. What we have here is a highly personal story. What we have here is an exposure of an egregious journalistic malfeasance by the top mainstream media outlets in the country.
What we have here is a tale that is largely true.
In a three-part 1996 newspaper series published in the San Jose Mercury News, Webb laid out the connections between the Contras, cocaine traffickers and the CIA. The series caused a sensation and was covered on the national news. It made Webb famous. And it ruined his life when mainstream media outlets — encouraged, the movie implies, by the CIA — rather than following up on his allegations, turned the spotlight on him and made him the story. Flaws were found in his sourcing, and a failing in his personal life was uncovered that devastated his family.
Using Webb’s book, “Dark Alliance,” and another book about the situation, “Kill the Messenger” by journalist Nick Schou, as source material, screenwriter Peter Landesman and director Michael Cuesta have crafted a gripping, thoughtful picture.
It’s uncommonly well-acted, with Renner giving a fine performance as a classic shoe-leather reporter, obsessive in pursuit of the story, tracking down sources, methodically connecting the dots and resisting all attempts, from officials and editors, to get him to back off. He’s also portrayed as a caring family man and his scenes with Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays his wife, and Lucas Hedges, who plays his teenage son, in which he strives to be honest about the demands of his job and in which he acknowledges his personal imperfections are some of the most moving in movie.
The picture is no fairy tale, and for Webb, the consequences of pursuing and defending his story are dire.