By Eleanor Ringel Cater
In another time — say, another century — “Kill the Messenger” would be the talk of the town. Or at least the talk of the water cooler.
It’s the true story of Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, who, in the mid 1990s, uncovered a hell of a story.
Or did he?
And if he did, was he done in — not by the usual suspects as by rival would-be Woodward-Bernsteins?
Webb’s plunge down the rabbit hole begins calmly enough. He answers his phone and hears a purring female voice, inviting him to attend the trial of a drug dealer. The woman turns out to be a hotter-than-hot Cuban with a hotter-than-hot grand jury transcript in her possession. The drug dealer? He’s her boyfriend. Adding to the oddities, the prosecution’s main witness is a former Nicaraguan drug lord with ties to the contras.
Like President Reagan, you may not remember the particulars, but essentially, the CIA-financed contras in Nicaragua and the crack-cocaine epidemic that poisoned so many inner city neighborhoods in the 1980s were, shall we say, not un-related. Rather than endanger certain national secrets — or even hint at certain national no-nos — the prosecutor drops the case.
However, Webb isn’t the sort to drop anything. And he’s just getting started.
But as he (and we) is repeatedly told, he doesn’t just have a tiger by the tail. He has a monster — or so says a shadowy Ray Liotta who turns up in Webb’s motel room to spill the beans (off record, of course) and then disappear. Almost as if Webb had made him up…
Though it’s often similarly framed — say, a spooky encounter in an underground garage —“Kill the Messenger” isn’t “All the Presidents Men” for the 21st Century. Rather, it’s more like a character study of a guy who got in too deep. Not necessarily with the CIA or the even Nicaraguans — though Andy Garcia has a fine time as a former cocaine king with fond memories of good ol’ Ollie (as in Oliver North).
The ones most determined to kill the messenger in this case are none other than Webb’s journalistic colleagues. The L.A. Times and the Washington Post (among others) take after him as if he had personally robbed them of their next Pulitzer.
Webb does enjoy a few moments of acclaim Invitations from CNN, CBS and just about everyone but Project Runway pour in. He’s awarded a major journalism award. And then…
It all goes south. This is the story “Kill the Messenger” should tell. Not half-hearted hints about bad-boy CIA agents, but a hard look at the sort of hardball that newspapers — and other media sources — play when they think they’ve been beat to a story. And, even worse, by what they consider a B-Level newspaper.
In a sense, the gist of this film is a tale of messengers trying to kill other messengers. It’s almost a story of corporate espionage and hierarchal chest-beating.
The movie is full of fine actors doing fine work in so-so roles: Oliver Platt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Barry Pepper, Paz Vega, and Michael Sheen, to name just a few. Their performances, rather than Michael Cuesta’s uncertain direction, give the movie its considerable energy.
Special mention must be made of Renner, one of those actors who somehow became a critics’ darling without, seemingly, having to do much more than look a little too happy/crazy about detonating bombs (see “The Hurt Locker”).
In “Kill the Messenger,” Renner digs down, demonstrating a plucky underdog’s ferocity and a crusader’s fearlessness. He’s the guy who just couldn’t catch a break. Not even when he was at the top of the world.