At the movies at least, the stock of righteous, muckraking journalists peaked with All the President’s Men. Newsmen (almost always men) had a pretty good run in Hollywood, but now journalism is a suspect enterprise like any other racket. Yet no one in 1996, when this factually inspired tale is set, has any idea how swiftly the standing of newspapers will erode. We hear the AOL dial-up tone when hotshot reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) files a big expose with the San Jose Mercury News, and the Web traffic is terrific—until his jealous MSM rivals shoot him down. If they only knew how soon the Age of Kardashian would make them all dinosaurs.
This isn’t just the story of Webb’s downfall, but, indirectly, that of the news biz, too. It would be too simple to call Kill the Messenger Webb’s belated vindication, though the movie embraces his dogged pursuit of a scandalous story become urban legend. (Screenwriter Peter Landesman is a former journalist; director Michael Cuesta has lately been guiding the intrigue on Homeland.) We’re placed entirely on Webb’s side when he gets some leaked court documents that lead him from the crack trade in ’80s L.A. to the CIA-backed contras in Nicaragua. The 10-year-old link seems incredible, but Webb finds sources in prison, Managua, and even Washington, D.C. (Michael Sheen plays a helpful intelligence officer who never quite goes on the record.) To sell Webb’s scoop, and the movie itself, Cuesta and Renner (a producer) hit the regular-guy theme much harder than needed. Gary’s a red-blooded, motorcycle-lovin’ family guy who listens to The Clash when he writes—too professionally aggressive, perhaps, but not enough to alarm his editors (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt).
What any good journalist knows, however, is that short of proven misdeeds—see Shattered Glass—the home life of journalists is reliably dull. Only their stories count. (Can you name one thing about the movie versions of Woodward and Bernstein?) Yet Webb is here made out to be the kind of impetuous idealist whose editors tell him, “You’re too much of an idealist!” He’s reckless, he ignores the warning signs, and finally he’s paranoid—waving a gun in his suburban driveway at the CIA agents who may or may not be following him.
In its earnest, plodding way, Kill the Messenger treads some of the same ground as Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 Traffic, only it insists on heroes and resolutions to a global business that continues to this day (and ever will). You want to see more of the moneyed misdeeds and villains (including Paz Vega, Andy Garcia, and Ray Liotta), but Kill the Messenger denies you that pleasure. And the folklore that attended Webb’s big story—repeated in the media by Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, and Rep. Maxine Waters—is also more interesting than Webb’s single-minded crusade. Should the truth matter most in such a movie? Just say no. Opens Fri., Oct. 10 at Guild 45th and other theaters. Rated R. 112 minutes.