Growing up amidst the frenzied panic of the War on Drugs left myself and countless other individuals skeptical of government’s ability to police the substances that people ingest. Nowadays, for the first time ever, it seems as if there’s some bipartisan admission that the War on Drugs was a failure, however, that doesn’t mean it’s going to end any time soon. The new film starring Jeremy Renner, Kill the Messenger, looks into the investigation by journalist Gary Webb, whose investigation into the drug trade found that the CIA was actively importing cocaine into America in order to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. It’s a film that wishes to indict the War on Drugs, American black-ops, and lionize the journalist that uncovered the whole story. Sadly, it falls short of its lofty goals.
Working as a journalist at the San Jose Mercury News, Gary Webb (Renner) is investigating the seizing of property from alleged drug dealers. Before long, Webb receives evidence that suggests that one prominent drug dealer is a government informant. With the assistance of Alan Fenster (Tim Blake Nelson), an attorney for an alleged crack dealer, Webb finds a trail of breadcrumbs which leads him to Nicaragua. In a Nicaraguan prison, Webb talks with Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia), who smuggled thousands of pounds of white powder into the states with the aid of the CIA in order to fund revolutionaries fighting communism. Webb publishes his piece entitled Dark Alliance, which sent shockwaves through the journalism and Washington communities. Before long, the facts in the piece are called into question by the powers that be in the CIA, and Webb’s reputation as journalist comes under fire. His editors, Anna Simmons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt), issue an apology in the paper, undermining Webb’s credibility. The events start piling upon one another and soon it causes tension with Webb and his wife, Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt). Despite receiving professional accolades, Webb resigns his post with the Mercury News, and is never able to find steady work in journalism again.
Director Michael Cuestra’s film, using a script by Peter Landesman based upon the writings of Webb and the book of the same title by Nick Schou, hits the ground running. As Webb conducts his investigation, the film works as a taut political thriller. After Webb publishes his piece, the film descends into a familial drama and loses its pacing and tension. The film’s promising start makes it all the more disappointing when the story and tension is fumbled in the 2nd half, like a running back in the clear who fumbles the ball untouched on the goal line. In an absolutely bewildering move, the film leaves the information of Gary Webb’s tragic suicide – under questionable circumstances – as an afterthought conveyed through a title card.
Breaking away from his usual minimalist style, Jeremy Renner gives it his all in his performance as Webb. And it doesn’t hurt that Renner is always acting opposite excellent actors, even in bit parts. With the exception of Pratt, Winstead, and DeWitt, most of the characters appear only in a scene or two, but the excellent casting keeps these brief characters memorable. Barry Pepper, Michael Sheen, Michael K. Williams, and Ray Liota make the most of their short appearances. When the film falls apart, it’s a failing of writing and directing, not of acting.
Kill the Messenger comes so close to being a special work, but its failings designate it to adequate status. It mirrors failings of the War on Drugs – started with the best intentions and descends into a runaway nightmare, unchecked by its own hubris. There’s a point where the film has a montage to The Clash’s blistering Know Your Rights, and I’m thinking, “This movie is for me.” Within minutes of that montage, the film loses its way and lost me as well. Like America may never recover from its never ending War on Drugs, the film never recovers from its fractured construction. Hell, it’s still better than anything Oliver Stone’s made in the past 20 years.