Kill the Messenger is partly about a shameful chapter in recent American history, and it is partly about the man who uncovered that chapter. It is both biopic and exposé, which makes for an awkward combination once the film has to put together its version of the truth. The movie is sticky at points, but it is always dramatically compelling, thanks in large part of a terrific central performance. Kill the Messenger is mostly worth seeing for Jeremy Renner, who once again shows audiences a frightening capacity for self-destruction.
In 1996, reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is handed the biggest story of his life. He uncovers the fact that the US government worked with South American drug dealers in the 1980s to bring cocaine into the country to use the profits to fund an illegal war in Nicaragua. In return for writing the story, Webb becomes the target of an elaborate smear campaign designed to discredit him and his work. Every ugly detail of his life is brought into public scrutiny, putting great pressure on him and his family.
The most intriguing thing about this movie is that it doesn't make a saint out of its hero. While the first half of the film is just scenes of Webb chasing down this story, the second half paints a portrait of a man driven to recklessness by his obsessions. While the movie ultimately makes the case that Webb was right, it takes the time to show how his pursuit of the stories may have led him down some wrong paths, both professionally and personally.
It's a fascinating dissection of a man, and when the film concentrates on the struggle of the main character it really does shine. It gets a little clunkier when it ventures away from that focus, the film casting aspersions that it never really substantiates. If the point of the film is that the truth is an absolute imperative, then there is some discomfort in the fact it leaves a bunch of issues unexplored and unexplained. The film makes it out that jealousy from other publications was the main motivation for discrediting Webb. It’s a fascinating claim that really deserved more exploration.
Still, even in its stickiest moments, the film keeps its drive through a magnificent performance from Jeremy Renner. This is the kind of role that Renner is great at. It calls to mind his performance in The Hurt Locker, where he played another man driven to dangerous ends because of his devotion to his profession. He's not dealing with bombs in this situation, but Renner displays the same single-minded drive that could be interpreted as a death wish. This is a fantastic performance that deserves attention. The supporting cast brings strong turns from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, and Rosemarie Dewitt.
Kill the Messenger probably doesn't go far enough in serving the truth of this particular situation. There's more mess to uncover, both in the realm of the political and the personal. The movie's stated devotion to the truth is cast into doubt as it abandons the pursuit of juicier paths of investigation. Still, the movie manages to be pretty compelling, thanks largely to an excellent Jeremy Renner. This is really the kind of role that Renner was built for, and he doesn't squander this opportunity. He is in the end the real reason to see the movie.