Few news stories caused a sensation like "Dark Alliance," a 1996 series of articles by Gary Webb that connected the CIA, Nicaragua's Contras and America's crack cocaine epidemic. Almost as astonishing as Webb's outsize claim was the that fact that he worked for the San Jose Mercury News in California, a newspaper not usually known for stories that made national headlines. As his stories sparked outrage among black communities devastated by cheap cocaine, Webb looked like the ideal journalist, the David who stood up to Goliath.
"Kill the Messenger," starring Jeremy Renner as Webb, tells that tale and the tragic one that followed. After a backlash from Webb's peers in the media, his stories were picked apart and his credibility tarnished. When his own paper issued a carefully worded apology, Webb quit. He never worked as a journalist again.
Directed by Dix Hills-raised filmmaker Michael Cuesta, "Kill the Messenger" is thoroughly on Webb's side. Renner, in his most energetic performance since "The Hurt Locker," plays Webb as a shaggy, slightly scattered but fearless reporter who stumbles upon a small-time drug case that leads to a full-blown international conspiracy. As Webb chases down sources (Andy Garcia plays a dapper jailbird named Norwin Meneses) and scribbles notes in a shaky hand, "Kill the Messenger" achieves the jittery tension of "The Insider," if not quite the righteous fervor of "All the President's Men."
At times the movie feels too wedded to Webb's version. Michael Sheen and Ray Liotta play informants who confirm Webb's leads but rather conveniently appear only to him; other sources who vanish or deny meeting Webb have clearly been "gotten to" by powerful forces. The movie never mentions the libel suits prompted by Webb's previous stories.
In 2004, Webb shot himself to death. "Kill the Messenger" portrays Webb as a martyr, though intelligent viewers may leave with a more nuanced view.
PLOT The story of Gary Webb, the controversial journalist who connected the CIA to America's crack cocaine epidemic.
RATING R (language)
CAST Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Andy Garcia
BOTTOM LINE Renner shines in this compelling but slightly one-sided journalism thriller.