Without a standout performance by Jeremy Renner, “Kill the Messenger” would have been no more entertaining than a standard History Channel documentary. The clash of journalistic ethics and political posturing that goes on here has historical significance, but it is nowhere near as naturally compelling as the tale of Watergate played out in “All the President’s Men.”
Even “All the President’s Men” would have been a tougher sell had it been less about President Richard Nixon and more about the careers of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
Although the story deals with an important moment in history, “Kill the Messenger” finds its power in the personal story of those involve, such as the heralded and eventually crucified San Jose Mercury news reporter Gary Webb (Renner).
Webb has his life changed when in 1996 he stumbles upon the story of how the CIA was aware in the 1980s that major dealers were smuggling cocaine into the United States and the profits were being used to arm the Contras, rebels fighting in Nicaragua. It looks like this is a career-making story for Webb when it earns him a Pulitzer Prize. This is where the film – based on the book of the same name by Nick Schou – makes a dramatic shift from a plodding tale of news reporting under fire to a powerful story of how jealousy, anger and revenge can be an overpowering force.
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Instead of following up on Webb’s findings, major publications such as The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post launched an assault to discredit the writer. They couldn’t understand how a reporter at a smaller newspaper could break such a massive story. After the assault, even Webb’s own newspaper failed to back up the writer.
Renner finds the perfect beats to show the stages of Webb’s rise and fall. At the start, he plays Webb with the kind of optimistic enthusiasm writers have when they latch on to a big story. Just as quickly, Renner shifts to a reserved humbleness after his story becomes a sensation. What makes Renner’s work so masterful is that he’s equally as believable when Webb’s life and career crash.
Under the firm guidance of director Michael Cuesta (“Homeland”), Renner skillfully navigates the low moments with the same skill as the high points. Any stumbles and the film would have fallen apart. It’s the kind of performance that makes a two-time Oscar nominee a three-time Oscar nominee.
On the surface, “Kill the Messenger” has all of the trappings of a newspaper procedural. Because Renner carries the story to such deep emotional levels, the film becomes a rich character struggle that reflects the ugliness of journalism.