The film has gone a bit under the radar, but Michael Cuesta's “Kill the Messenger” deserves your attention this weekend. Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), the film chronicles how the San Jose Mercury News beat writer discovered that the CIA was knowingly funding drug smuggling into the United States during the 1980s. It's not an exaggeration to say breaking the story destroyed his life.
Webb uncovered that the CIA knew its Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters — known as Contras — were smuggling cocaine into the nation's inner cities in order to fund their battle against the country's new socialist government, which had overthrown the previous regime in 1979. These massive shipments helped fuel the crack cocaine epidemic in major U.S. cities. His reporting was documented in a series of articles titled “Dark Alliance” in 1996.
Unfortunately for Webb, he worked for a regional paper, and its national competitors — specifically the LA Times (who were embarrassed they missed the story) and the Washington Post — did everything possible to discredit Webb's story (which was in fact true). Webb's personal story does not have a happy ending and is an example of how even in recent times established and respected media sources can let their journalistic oaths be corrupted by jealousy and vindictiveness.
As a movie, “Kill the Messenger” is an intriguing thriller, but Cuesta and screenwriter Peter Landesman don't quite know how to deliver a satisfactory ending. It doesn't help that a key moment in Webb's life, a speech where he received the Bay Area Press Award after his paper had just abandoned him, doesn't have the emotional resonance the filmmakers were clearly hoping for. That being said, it's a fascinating story that deserves more attention.
Speaking to Renner in August during an early press day, I noted the film made me want to do more research on Webb's life, and the “Hurt Locker” star said he had the same reaction after getting the script.
Renner recalls, “I knew there was going to be a lot of headwind because it's going to be difficult to sell, because I don't have a cape on. But I believed in it and I loved the character. I loved what he was trying to stay and what he did say.”
The 43-year-old actor says the entire subject matter fascinated him, but what was more odd were the things that happened after he came on board the film as a star and producer. The San Jose Mercury News, in particular, felt they had to say something. What they were trying to say is still unclear, at least according to Renner.
“They put out another article not apologizing, but apologizing…it was a weird article,” Renner says. “Someone sent it to me. They were acknowledging I was doing this movie and it was about Gary Webb and the paper and all these things. But they just wanted, before the movie got started, to have a placeholder of where they were. I felt it was a weird, weird article.”
Even after two Oscar nominations, Renner has finally become recognizable around the world for his role as Hawkeye in “The Avengers.” He says “without a doubt” that notoriety has allowed him to help get smaller films like “Kill the Messenger” off the ground. While he appreciates that benefit, he doesn't want anyone to think it's the only reason he became a superhero or a member of the “Mission: Impossible” team with Tom Cruise.
“I'm passionate about everything I do or otherwise I'm not going to go do it,” Renner says. “There is no amount of money that's going to make me go do something. I have to feel desire to do something. I always desired to hang out with Cruise and do 'M:I-5' and do stunts and stuff like that and work with Alec Baldwin. Whether it's a big or small movie, it excites me.”
For more, watch the video interview embedded at the top of this post.
“Kill the Messenger” opens in as wide a limited release possible on Friday. That means it's likely playing in a theater near you.