He fought the law – and the law won. That’s basically the film in a nutshell. According to director Michael Cuesta (TV’s Homeland), Gary Webb, a real-life reporter for San Jose Mercury News was the first journalist to see the link between a US backed war being waged in Nicaragua and the flood of cocaine inundating the poorer sections of Los Angeles.
Not surprisingly, the film depicts Mr. Webb as a crusading reporter stymied at every turn by the CIA . (Peter Landesman’s screenplay is based on Mr. Webb’s “Dark Alliance” and a book by Nick Schou).
Not everyone is impressed. In an article headlined “Gary Webb was no journalistic hero – despite what Kill the Messenger says” Washington Post’s Jeff Leen writes “Webb’s story made the extraordinary claim that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in America. What he lacked was the extraordinary proof …. at first, the claim was enough ….Then it all began to come apart. The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times … wrote major pieces knocking the story down for its overblown claims and undernourished reporting.” (In the film the major papers are depicted as jealous. In one scene, an editor berates his staff for getting scooped by a much smaller paper.)
Judging from the casting, the producers may have been hoping for another All the President’s Men. No one in current Hollywood is better at coiled intensity than Jeremy Renner who plays Gary Webb in this film.
On the other hand, Robert Patrick, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Sheen and Ray Liotta (to name a few) are wasted in small parts and even the blink-and-you’ll-miss them cameos are filled with familiar faces. I saw the film on Netflix so I don’t know how much of the footage ended up on the cutting room floor. But surely estimable character actors like, for example, Richard Schiff (TV’s West Wing) and Gil Bellows (you’ll recognize him when you see him) deserve more screen time. About the only performer who left an impression was the chameleonic Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mr. Webb’s long-suffering editor and friend.
Since the film sank at the box office, the subject of the film has sank with it. It’s entertaining enough, boosted by Mr. Renner’s galvanizing performance. Just don’t get swept away. As Kris Kristofferson once said (in a somewhat different context) “He’s a walking contradiction … partly truth and partly fiction.”