From "All the President's Men" to "Good Night and Good Luck," there have been any number of films devoted to telling the true-life tales of the journalists devoted to uncovering stories of corruption, abuse of power, and hidden scandals. The involving but formulaic "Kill the Messenger" continues in that tradition, focusing on Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury newspaper, who in the mid-90's stumbled across a connection between the CIA and the influx of crack cocaine in America. However, the film deviates from the standard formula by devoting as much time to Webb's investigation as it does to the tragic fallout from his journalistic crusade.
While working on a story about the government seizing the property of drug dealers who have yet to be convicted, Webb is approached by the comely Coral (Paz Vega), girlfriend of one of those very drug dealers, who bats her eyes and conveniently offers him grand jury documents which seem to prove that a big-time cocaine dealer is actually working for the U.S. government. Further digging leads him to discovering a monumental plot involving the government using the sale of drugs in America to fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels fighting against communism in their country after congress had refused to finance their war.
Ignoring the perpetually furrowed brow of his editor (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who attempts to dissuade Webb from following the story any further, he pays no heed to her warnings that a medium-sized paper like theirs may be reaching above their station and entering territory claimed by big guns like The New York Times and The Washington Post. "We don't do international," she explains, but naturally, he continues on his path.
Typically, this type of film ends in triumph, with the publishing of an article that blows the doors off a massive story, exposing corruption and setting the stage for justice to be done. Instead, the spotlight is turned on Webb himself, as holes are poked in his story and his credibility called into question. Outside forces systematically shut Webb down until he's completely discredited and his livelihood all but destroyed -- leading to the film's not-so-subtle title. Most intriguingly, the film implies that wounded pride on the part of other newspapers played a large role in the journalist's fate, as they contributed heavily to Webb's fall from grace.
Especially in its first half, the script (credited to Peter Landesman and based on a book by Nick Schou, as well as Webb's own book, "Dark Alliance") sticks to formula, but director Michael Cuesta always keeps things compelling as we follow the investigation, uncovering the plot along with Webb and keeping us invested in his fate. This is a story that's clearly worth telling, but the reliance on domestic drama is disappointing -- how many times must we see the same old subplot in which a wife demands that her husband stop his noble pursuit because of what it's putting their family through. Rosemarie DeWitt valiantly tries to do what she can with the wan material she's given, but dramatic embellishments like this make one wish for a documentary covering the same subject. Still, Renner gives a great performance.
Recently, the actor has appeared largely in action blockbusters like "The Avengers" and "The Bourne Legacy," but with a real character to sink his teeth into, he delivers his best performance since his Oscar-nominated turn in "The Hurt Locker."
"Kill the Messenger" functions foremost as another outrage-inducing reminder of the more sinister reasons that true journalism is all but extinct in this country, though whether those reasons are any less scary and depressing than simple journalistic laziness is up for debate.