In the 1990s, American journalist Gary Webb (Renner) exposed the CIAs involvement in drug and arms trafficking to the detriment of his professional career and family life.
Investigative journalism has proven time and again to be a ripe source for fact-based thrillers, given their natural tendency towards escalating tension and noblest conviction. Michael Cuesta’s Kill The Messenger initially looks to march to the beat of the same drum as All The President’s Men and The Insider, following San Jose reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) as he inadvertently uncovers a suspect connection between America’s Central Intelligence Agency and Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
It’s not Gary’s usual kind of story. While covering the eviction of drug dealers from their ill-gotten homes, a defendant’s girlfriend (Paz Vega, briefly vamping it up) hands him a deposition too revealing to ignore. It’s not his paper’s usual story, either, putting them in a position to scoop bigger outlets should they run the less-than-credible word of proven criminals. As Webb dismisses off-the-record warnings, on-the-ground rebels and endless government stonewalling, Messenger flits between the charge of sticking it to the man while sympathising with its subject to nearly a fault.
Making these procedural aspects go down easier is a cast packed with welcome character actors, ranging from Andy Garcia and Michael K. Williams as informants behind bars to Barry Pepper and Michael Sheen as federal men advising caution
and only fuelling Gary’s fire in the process. And that’s not to mention Tim Blake Nelson, Ray Liotta and Robert Patrick all putting in appearances. It would have been nice to see some of these familiar faces for longer than a scene or two each, but they uniformly serve their roles well.
The film actually becomes more involving in its second hour, when the triumphant publication of Webb’s article is very swiftly undermined by an administration intent on discrediting him. Renner’s performance evolves from one of conceivable cockiness to one of credible wariness and increasing remorse, as Gary’s editor (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and publisher (Oliver Platt) begin to distance themselves, and his own wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) wavers in her unyielding support while their three children look on. Cuesta’s film matches him in kind, turning its relatively simplistic fist-pumping David-and-Goliath story into a sobering Icarus tale about a man whose pursuit of the truth would ultimately come at too steep a cost.
Renner's solid performance anchors a formidable ensemble in the type of well-intentioned docudrama more likely to leave your head shaking than your pulse pounding.