Kill The Messenger assembles a number of familiar crusading-journalist-movie ingredients—a true story, shadowy sources, a possible conspiracy, one man against the system—and for a while, manages to stir them up enough to almost resemble something fresh. The most noticeable modification is to the movie’s timeframe: The big story by real-life reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) actually gets printed around the movie’s halfway mark. More than many journalism pictures, this one follows post-publication fallout beyond the usual set of postscripts just before the credits. It’s an interesting approach to a fascinating story—yet it still can’t fully break free of its initial limitations.
The movie’s first half concentrates on legwork. Webb starts at the San Jose Mercury News, where a drug trafficker’s girlfriend shows him paperwork indicating a link between cocaine smugglers and the U.S. government. She’s mostly just trying to spring her boyfriend, but Webb takes the bait and follows a trail of drugs and dealers from Los Angeles (whose South Central is particularly ravaged by crack-cocaine by the movie’s 1996 starting point) to Nicaragua, discovering a possible link between the smugglers, the CIA, and Contra militias. In these scenes, he’s also following a trail of character actors, from Robert Patrick to Tim Blake Nelson to Michael K. Williams, complete with the obligatory Oliver Platt appearance (he plays Webb’s boss in San Jose). Messenger’s well-stocked cast is qualified for a semi-historical romp in the style of American Hustle or Boogie Nights, but apart from Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as Webb’s editor), everyone pretty much comes in for a scene or two of shoe leather, then exits.
While most of the actors have little to do, Renner gets plenty: self-righteousness, frustration, and the accompanying actorly outbursts. It’s not a bad performance—if anything, he subtly suggests some of the personal qualities that seed doubts in his bosses and that the rest of the movie doesn’t explore in much detail, like the daredevil undercurrents to his role as a suburban dad and provider. Some of those details are visible in Messenger’s scenes of domestic drama, where Webb’s wife, Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt), worries, as wives in journalism movies do, about his obsession with finishing his investigation at any cost. DeWitt brings her distinctive energy to the role—rather than wringing her hands, she has a way of looking as if she might laugh, cry, or scream—but doesn’t transcend it.
She’s not alone. Little of Kill The Messenger transcends innate familiarity. Director Michael Cuesta hustles through the story at a decent clip, generating tension and using frequent following shots to put the audience on the trail along with Webb. But his movie lacks a point of view beyond the vindication of its subject. Its greatest novelty is that it doesn’t operate as a simple victory lap: As the postscripts note, further follow-up to Webb’s reports were lost in a sea of Clinton/Lewinsky scandal coverage in the late ’90s. This story deserves to be told, and this movie isn’t a bad telling. It just wouldn’t cut it as pure fiction; it’s more informative than entertaining.