Toward the end of Michael Cuesta’s Kill the Messenger, Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), the famed Clinton-era San Jose Mercury News reporter, opines on more than one occasion that he’s become the true focus of countless news outlets, rather than the shattering subject matter of his “Dark Alliance” series of articles. These pieces detailed the C.I.A.’s part in funding the contras in Nicaragua during the Reagan years, through illegal crack-cocaine sales in the U.S., and Cuesta’s film spends its intriguing first 45 minutes tracking the research of the articles and Webb’s Clash-soundtracked writing process. And much like the journalists and news institutions that it condemns, Kill the Messenger devolves quickly henceforth into a pedestrian character study that basks in Webb’s public shaming and victimization, and loses all sight of the bravery and probing talent that characterized Webb’s writing.
As adapted by Peter Landesman from Webb’s articles and Nick Schou’s biography of Webb, the script is ultimately less interested in Webb the journalist as it is in Webb the pure, haunted everyman, and by extension, Cuesta flattens out a great deal of what makes Webb such a controversial figure. As the film becomes more and more about the witch hunt that crippled Webb professionally, the man becomes just another martyr for the free-information movement. Scenes featuring Webb dealing with his troubled marriage to Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt), his relationship with his eldest son, Ian (Lucas Hedges), and his view of the decay of his profession are meant to humanize him, lend intimacy to a nasty bit of relatively recent U.S. history. In reality, these elongated dramatic sequences come off as broad and by-the-numbers reiterations of Webb’s saintly determination and jangly altruism.
Even when addressing Webb’s shortcomings, Cuesta can’t help but express an idealistic worship of his subject, such as Ian’s quickly mended revelation of his father’s adultery. The attention paid to the smear campaign that tainted him, rendered him helpless, and likely contributed to his suicide in 2004 only goes to emboss Cuesta’s vision of Webb as an underdog hero. To an extent, that’s a fitting title for Webb, but this perspective waters down the complexity of his persona, which is to say that it simplifies the mind and manner of a man who clearly thrived off of personal, historical, governmental, and societal challenges. That the director is blessed with a willing, admiring cast, including Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Michael Kenneth Williams, is perhaps Kill the Messenger’s only saving grace. They add fleeting flavor to this otherwise bland historical drama, a sense of opinions, work, and habits outside of Webb and his adoring family. In the end, however, Cuesta ends up providing less a study of a principled, tragic newsman, or the governmental fiasco that brought him into the limelight, than an overworked diagram of a role model.