Implication is the hallmark of “Kill the Messenger.”
Inspired by the true story of Gary Webb — the San Jose Mercury News reporter known for a controversial series of articles suggesting a link between the CIA, the California crack epidemic and the Nicaraguan Contras — this slightly overheated drama begins and ends with innuendo. In between is a generous schmear of insinuation.
The movie starts like a documentary, with a montage of anti-drug sound bites from the 1980s, mixed with archival news footage of the war in Nicaragua. Delivered by the likes of President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, these “Just Say No”-era clips set up the audience for the film’s central premise: that the U.S. government only paid lip service to the War on Drugs while turning a blind eye to — if not actually condoning — the sale of Central American cocaine to our inner-city youth. The rationale goes as follows: As long as the drug proceeds were being funneled back to support Nicaragua’s CIA-sponsored freedom fighters — i.e., the “good” guys — the ends justified the means.
This, of course, was also the central premise of Webb’s 1996 “Dark Alliance” series, which originally appeared on the Mercury News Web site under a logo featuring a crack pipe superimposed on the CIA seal. Subtle? No. But it helped drive home — maybe even to skew — Webb’s message in a way that would blind some readers to its underlying truths, while ultimately destroying him.
That, in a nutshell, is the point of “Kill the Messenger”: Webb was right, but railroaded.
The film presents the reporter (played with roguish intensity by Jeremy Renner) as a misunderstood crusader whose reporting, while arguably flawed, was unfairly maligned by larger newspapers, The Washington Post among them. (Writing in response to The Post’s critical coverage of the “Dark Alliance” series, the paper’s then-ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, wrote in November 1996 that the newspaper “showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in San Jose’s answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves.”)
It isn’t just other newspapers that are presented as villains in “Kill the Messenger.” Webb’s own editors, Jerry Ceppos and Anna Simons, played by Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, are depicted as craven and disloyal for their refusal to defend Webb, who was banished to the newspaper’s Cupertino bureau after questions about his reporting began to surface, and who soon quit. As for the CIA, the agency is portrayed as a gang of goons that stoops to intimidation and, it is strongly implied, worse in their effort to silence Webb, who killed himself in 2004.
Despite the film’s heavy-handed effort at vindication, Renner manages to deliver a performance that is complex and satisfyingly contradictory. Directed by television veteran Michael Cuesta (“Homeland”) and adapted by screenwriter Peter Landesman from Webb’s writings and Nick Schou’s 2006 book “Kill the Messenger,” the film presents Webb as an old-fashioned shoe-leather reporter with some questionable methods. (The unglamorous nature of investigative journalism is rendered, at times, with a laughable visual shorthand, juxtaposing close-up shots of computer keystrokes with images of string and pushpins on maps, making Webb look like a cross between a typist and a serial killer.)
“Kill the Messenger” should nevertheless appeal to Washington audiences. Despite some back story about friction in Webb’s relationship with his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), the film stays mainly in the web of intrigue that binds government and media in a relationship of symbiotic dysfunction. It’s an “All the President’s Men” that’s more tragic than triumphal, with a hero who gets taken down, leaving the bad guys standing.
★ ★ ½
R. At area theaters. Contains obscenity and drug content. 112 minutes.