Kill the Messenger

(2014) ** 1/2 R
112 min. Focus Features. Director: Michael Cuesta. Cast: Jena Sims, Jeremy Renner, Robert Patrick, Rosemarie DeWitt, Paz Vega.

/content/films/4731/1.jpgAt one point in the clunky speak-truth-to-power drama Kill the Messenger, a source tells a reporter, "Some stories are just too true to tell." It's a premise the protagonist—San Jose Mercury News senior investigative reporter Gary Webb—refuses to accept, just like director Michael Cuesta. But the comment conjures the thought that not every true story benefits from being retold in the medium of film.

Obviously, Kill the Messenger carries with it a compelling local interest for Bay Area audiences. Based on Webb's Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion and Nick Schou's Kill the Messenger, the film proves nominally interested in Webb's investigation of domestic crack-cocaine sales funding the Contras in Nicaragua, with the knowledge and support of the CIA. More so, though, Peter Landesman's script essays the toll of Webb's reporting on his career and personal life—hence, the title.

The film opens in 1996, with Webb cracking a drug forfeiture story that has the unintended consequence of rustling up a much larger reveal. Out of the woodwork come sources claiming that the U.S. government used a Nicaraguan dealer to move four tons of cocaine from there to here. This tip of the iceberg leads crusading reporter Webb to unearth the CIA's direct involvement, corroborated in part by Nicaraguan drug smuggler Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia).

The wages of the CIA program include the crack epidemic felt most deeply in South Central L.A., which makes Webb's story particularly explosive once published by the Mercury in print and, in an early show of viral online impact, on its website. But even as Webb basks in his success, he knows he has been warned, not only by a sympathetic Beltway insider (Michael Sheen) but by the CIA, which clearly if implicitly threatens Webb's family (including wife Rosemarie DeWitt and eldest son Lucas Hedges).

Cuesta's credits as director of L.I.E. and the Homeland pilot for Showtime attract an impressive ensemble of supporting players (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt as editors, Paz Vega as an oversexed source) and one-scene ponies (Garcia, Sheen, Barry Pepper, Richard Schiff, Robert Patrick, Ray Liotta, Michael K. Williams), but it's Renner who humbly carries the film on his shoulders and surprisingly (given the story's indignation-stirring sociopolitical implications) makes the best case for the story's resonance as a human one.

For all this, and to its detriment, Kill the Messenger ain't an Oliver Stone film. Rather than a fiercely intelligent, live-wire exposé, the well-intentioned picture comes across as weak-tea drama that never fully justifies its docudramatic form. By the time Cupertino gets depicted as some kind of backwater to which Webb is at one point banished, local multiplex-goers will smell something rotten in Cinemark.

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