The most overused narrative crutch in the last decade is the use of news footage, whether real or faked, to artificially advance the story and fill in blanks that the writer refused to bother with. It’s the modern-day equivalent of a newsie shouting out headlines directly pertaining to the protagonist or a whirling newspaper hurtling towards the screen. Ever since the cliché reached its high/low-water mark in the 2012 Best Picture winner Argo, just about every biopic set in the television age and beyond is required to cobble together a TV news montage for a phony shot of verisimilitude.
Beyond sheer laziness—and a naked intention to employ contemporary TV journalists as a Greek chorus—the trope has the effect of investing media with the unearned authority of truth. Kill the Messenger director Michael Cuesta’s biopic of the unfairly disgraced journalist Gary Webb opens with one of those stage-setting news montages that explains the basics of Nicaraguan Contras and crack. The use of the TV news Greek chorus is bitterly ironic here, as the film is otherwise obsessed with the way that truth is distorted and repressed by the news media.
In 1996, Webb’s San Jose Mercury-News report on the link between the Contras, the Central Intelligence Agency and the American crack epidemic caused an unprecedented institutional retaliation. Both the story and Webb were picked apart by rivals at The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among others, and he was hounded by the CIA and hung out to dry by his own paper. After initially lauding Webb for scooping their larger-circulation rivals on a story that was eventually verified as fact, the Mercury-News printed a retraction, and Webb’s resulting downward spiral ended with suicide in 2004.
On the surface, it’s a pretty meaty story, a globe-trotting tale of intrigue and corruption about a flawed but noble man who took on an unbeatable system when everyone told him to stand down. But Cuesta and screenwriter Peter Landesman, who adapts both Webb’s book version of the CIA-Contra-crack story and Nick Schou’s biography of Webb, are less interested in the man than the message. Their Gary Webb says things like “This is America!” and “I believe in due process.” Though the film spends a lot of time with Webb’s wife (Rosemarie DeWitt, transcending an underwritten character) and children, most of their scenes feel like obligatory story beats.
Webb is played by Jeremy Renner, who gives a solid performance without ever quite getting past the surface of the character. Reporting on hardened criminals and zipping around on motorcycles, Webb is seen here as a sort of cowboy journalist, a fearless reporter and family man with just enough skeletons in the closet to embolden his enemies. Renner has Webb’s mustache, sunglasses, cigarettes, untucked shirt, journalistic passion and devilish smirk, but he mostly talks and behaves like a character in a silly movie. He even closes the film with an emotional, let’s-put-it-all-in-perspective awards banquet speech that plays like something out of Ron Burgundy’s reel.
As the film opens, Webb is reporting on the federal government seizing assets of people who were acquitted of drug charges, which brings him to the attention of a flirty moll played by Paz Vega. She merely uses him as a pawn to get her boyfriend’s charges dropped by the government, but Webb keeps pulling at the thread, finding deeper connections between the Reagan-funded Contras and the simultaneous crack explosion in the African American community.
This section—with Webb chasing the story from South Central LA to Washington D.C. to Central American prisons and airstrips—is easily the best sequence in the film, a vigorous tour through the American drug war. However, it’s also a relatively minor portion of the film and the movie is otherwise largely indifferent to the nitty-gritty details of Webb’s Dark Alliance series. Kill the Messenger goes slowly downhill from there and the largely speculative paranoia of the final act is more in line with Cuesta’s work on Homeland. It only shows how much more interesting an intelligent documentary about Webb and Dark Alliance would be than this weak and warmed-over biopic treatment.
Kill the Messenger (R)
Dir. Michael Cuesta; writ. Peter Landesman, Gary Webb, Nick Schou; feat. Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Robert Patrick, Paz Vega
Opens October 10 at Santikos Bijou
★★ (out of 5 stars)