I have a very strong feeling that in a few years, as his performance is rediscovered, a lot of people will be saying "Why didn't anyone talk about how great Jeremy Renner was in KILL THE MESSENGER?" Though the film boasts a great performance from Renner, it's not a particularly showy one, particularly in an Oscar season that sets it against Jake Gyllenhaal in NIGHTCRAWLER and Michael Keaton in BIRDMAN. The strange thing is that I can recall a time when this would have been the sort of dark horse everyone was buzzing about.
Renner plays journalist Gary Webb, a writer for The San Jose Mercury News who stumbles onto a bigger story when the girlfriend of a cocaine-trafficker brings him evidence that the key witness against her boyfriend used to sell drugs for the U.S. government. Webb is dubious until he sees the evidence, a grand jury transcript mistakenly turned over in the discovery process. Once Webb starts poking around, he realizes he's making a lot of people in the government nervous, a sure sign he's onto something.
This leads him to interview notorious drug figures like L.A.'s "Freeway" Rick Ross, and then feeds questions to Ross's attorney at trial, so that the examination of the witnesses against Ross can unearth a deeper conspiracy - that the government's biggest witness against the dealer was actually smuggling tons of cocaine into the country at the behest of the C.I.A. He takes a later trip to Nicaragua to interview another drug lord in prison, and this guy fingers Oliver North as the man who suggested using the cash from the cocaine sales in America to fund Nicaraguan rebels known as the Contras.
Yes, this all ties into Iran-Contra, undoubtedly one of the biggest scandals of the Reagan Administration and one that's been wiped relatively clean from Reagan's legacy. (Seriously, visit the Reagan Library sometime and see how sparse the material on his second term is. It's a joke. I don't think the Nixon Library gets away with a similar white-wash on Watergate. The difference is that the core of Watergate is pretty easy to distill, whereas Iran-Contra is so complicated that I suspect the average American barely understands what all the fuss was about.)
With enough smoking guns that seem to tie the C.I.A. directly to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, Webb writes his story and it's a bombshell. It pisses off people in government and a number of his rivals at other publications. Few are shown to be more pissed than The Los Angeles Times, who apparently missed a giant story right under their noses. Thus, both they and The Washington Post (portrayed here as a mouthpiece for the C.I.A.) set to work at debunking the story and destroying Webb's credibility.
The first half of the film follows the relatively familiar pattern of the dogged journalist working to expose corruption in power. It's an underdog story where moral righteousness prevails, the truth is dragged into the light and our hero is lauded for the bravery he shows in the face of harassment and firm "you don't want to keep digging" conversations from sinister government officials. The only problem for Webb is that all of this takes up only the first half of the movie.
The second half of the film completely subverts the expectations of the first. Webb deals with the fallout, and that includes some pretty heavy indictments against the media. Some in the press are guilty of misrepresenting what Gary's story actually says, which makes that misrepresentation vulnerable to "debunking" by the CIA, thus smearing Gary's credibility over charges he never actually made. This turns some of Webb's media appearances into a farce where the talking points have nothing to do with the truth. Then come the criticisms that he has no one on the record who's above reproach. As Webb points out, when getting people to go on the record about corruption they participated in, it's going to be hard to find someone who's morally pure.
The film takes the position that everything Webb wrote about was in fact true. Since we're there when he's meeting the key witnesses, we know that his editors are wrong when they suggest that Gary might have gotten a little overzealous, or misrepresented what he was told. You can understand in an abstract way why his editors might give pause when the blowback hits, but the filmmakers were wise not to make this potential ambiguity a crux of the story.
This becomes a story of how one man's life and career were completely destroyed by exposing government corruption. It's the dark mirror of the Woodward and Bernstein sort of heroic journalists who buck the odds and come out vindicated. Gary Webb takes on the system and the system sets out to destroy him, with the fourth estate becoming a willing accomplice to Webb's lynching. Renner does some of his best work as his world spirals out from under him in the second half of the film. It's a downfall made all the more painful for the investment of one half of the film in what seems to be leading to his coronation as a leading journalist.
I first read this script years ago, and I recall it casting a powerful spell, being one of the best screenplays I read that year. Thus, it's no surprise that it attracted not only a terrific lead in Renner, but a supporting cast that's a murderer's row of great actors: Rosemarie DeWitt does fine work as Webb's wife, a woman who can't quite believe in her husband as much as she wants to. The always-excellent Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead make the most of their roles as Webb's editors, which allows those characters to remain sympathetic even as their actions are somewhat cowardly and self-serving. Michael Sheen and Ray Liotta also turn up in brief parts as key figures in the conspiracy.
It's a real shame that this film is falling under the radar, though perhaps ironic. SPOILER: a closing title card reveals that in real life, the C.I.A. released a 400-page report that essentially confirmed everything Webb wrote about a few years earlier. However, since this happened concurrent with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, none of the major papers paid it much attention. That's the perfect note on which to end this film, summing up every point it wants to make about American journalism.