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"KILL THE MESSENGER"
(2014) (Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Thriller: A newspaper reporter must contend with the fallout of his story tying the CIA to the introduction of crack cocaine into poor Los Angeles neighborhoods.
PLOT:
Gary Webb (JEREMY RENNER) is a newspaper reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who's working on a story about the feds confiscating property of drug dealers before there's even a conviction. His work draws the interest of Coral (PAZ VEGA), the sultry girlfriend to an imprisoned drug dealer.

Her allegation that the feds were working with him immediately grabs Gary's attention, although federal prosecutor Russell Dodson (BARRY PEPPER) isn't happy to have the reporter snooping around his case that involves dealer Ricky Ross (MICHAEL KENNETH WILLIAMS) taking the stand with his lawyer, Alan Fenster (TIM BLAKE NELSON), receiving help from Gary.

That leads to the reporter heading to Nicaragua to interview imprisoned drug lord Norwin Meneses (ANDY GARCIA) whose information has Gary headed to D.C. to meet -- off the record -- National Security Council official Fred Weil (MICHAEL SHEEN). He not only warns the reporter that he should be careful, but that some stories are too true to be told.

Undeterred, Gary runs his story that connects the CIA to the introduction of crack cocaine into poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles, all as a way to fund support of the Contras a decade earlier. His editor, Anna Simons (MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD), and manager, Jerry Ceppos (OLIVER PLATT) are initially quite pleased. Not surprisingly, the feds aren't, which also holds true for rival bigger newspapers that aren't happy he broke the story.

Accordingly, both they and the feds try to discredit the story and sully his reputation, with his only support eventually dwindling down to his wife, Sue (ROSEMARIE DeWITT), and their three kids, including 16-year-old Ian (LUCAS HEDGES). As Gary tries to prove he's right, all while being unable to get anyone from the CIA to go on the record, including rogue agent John Cullen (RAY LIOTTA), the reporter finds his world unraveling as he hopes to validate his work.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
It's interesting how similar work can be for investigative reporters and police detectives. Both sets are experts at looking at clues and seeing or figuring out things a layperson would likely miss. Witnesses are a key ingredient for the two groups, as is the ability to ask the correct questions in order to get the info they're looking for. And the work of both can ultimately save lives if the information they discover is vital to the well-being of others.

They can also similarly find themselves in deep water if they go looking for intel and answers where such inquiries aren't welcome, and thus both can put themselves -- accidentally and sometimes willingly -- in harm's way while on their quest. Yet, whereas such detectives more than likely have the backs of their fellow cops, reporters usually don't have armed comrades looking out for them.

The potential peril and lack of much peer support shine their ugly faces in the appropriately titled "Kill the Messenger," a generally well-made and thought-provoking dramatic thriller where the thematic element that some stories are too true to be told reigns king. Based on a real-life incident of which I was unaware -- as well as two books on the matter, Gary Webb's 1999 "Dark Alliance" and Nick Schou's 2009 work "Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb" -- the pic focuses on a pivotal part of Webb's life while he was working at the San Jose Mercury News.

In 1996, he discovered that the CIA had fueled the explosion of crack cocaine in poor urban areas of Los Angeles via Nicaragua's drug trade, all to fund the U.S. support of the Contras a decade earlier. His articles and subsequent fame and adulation turned ugly backlash -- that I don't recall from the time, a point the film makes near its conclusion about government officials and the media instead being focused on the Monica Lewinsky story -- would make any budding cub reporter think twice about digging deep. And that's especially true since his outcome didn't have the same impact as the Watergate conspiracy, either in terms of exposing and bringing down a top government official or making a household name out of a newspaper reporter.

It's too bad Webb didn't make it to see this film as he probably would have found the work of director Michael Cuesta, screenwriter Peter Landesman, lead actor Jeremy Renner and the rest of the cast and crew as shining a well-crafted light on a dark and ugly part of our history that sadly got swept under the rug due to the actions of another U.S. president and his comely intern.

What surprised me most wasn't the underhanded government dealings, be that the actual drugs for money scheme, the destruction of inner city neighborhoods via the crack epidemic, or the attempts to quiet those rattling the cages. Instead, it was how other publications -- that one outside of the industry would obviously likely see as something of a competitive band of brothers -- turned on one of their own by going on the warpath to discredit Webb's findings, research, and the man himself.

If there's one central criticism to how all of that's presented, it's that the filmmakers have crammed a fairly significant number of events, players and recognizable to well-known performers playing some of those parts into the pic's 112-some minute runtime. There's Robert Patrick playing a drug dealer who gets busted while Webb interviews him; Ray Liotta appearing as a former CIA operative who sort of comes clean, but not on the record; Andy Garcia as an imprisoned drug kingpin who holds courts over the rest of the inmates at his Nicaraguan prison; Barry Pepper as a federal prosecutor who's not happy to have a reporter sniffing around; Tim Blake Nelson as a shady lawyer who defends shady clients; and Michael Sheen playing a government man who warns our protagonist of the perils related to stomping through a minefield of government cover-ups.

All have significant roles in terms of the discovery process and route Webb goes through and takes, but most aren't around for much more than a scene or two, all of which has the movie teetering on the precipice of being too episodic. Having more screen time is Oliver Platt as the reporter's newspaper manager and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his editor, both of whom feel the heat of having run his story, while Rosemarie Witt plays his wife and Lucas Hedges plays his 16-year-old son whose opinion of his father changes as things unfolded and are revealed. Even so, we don't know a great deal about them either, giving the pic something of a superficial feel as it moves from point A to point B and so on.

Despite the revolving parade of characters and related storylines, Cuesta keeps things fairly tight and focused, and it's not difficult at all to keep up with the proceedings or feel plenty of empathy and sympathy for our hero, warts and all. I've always like Renner and he shines brightly here, playing a man who's driven by the truth far more than ego, yet finds his lifelong passion ending up being much of his undoing.

I just wish everything would have been better fleshed out. I'm no fan of ultra-long movies, but this is certainly an important, real-life tale that deserves more time for things to unfold, play out, and be explained. Perhaps a mini-series on HBO or some similar channel would have made it feel more complete. As it stands, it's good, but it's not as brilliant as it likely could have been. "Kill the Messenger" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed October 2, 2014 / Posted October 10, 2014


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