Film

Film review: ‘Kill the Messenger’ is a fascinating story with a fantastic central performance

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Jeremy Renner plays reporter Gary Webb in Michael Cuesta’s excellent Kill the Messenger.
Jeffrey M. Anderson

Three and a half stars

Kill the Messenger Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt. Directed by Michael Cuesta. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Michael Cuesta’s Kill the Messenger takes on dense material and, for the most part, makes it feel important without feeling heavy or overstuffed. First, it provides a biographical portrait of reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), who wrote for the San Jose Mercury News and committed suicide in 2004. Second, it chronicles Webb’s biggest story, published in 1996, asserting that, in the 1980s, the CIA used profits from crack cocaine sold on the streets of LA to back the Contras in the war in Nicaragua. Third, it follows Webb’s downfall, not at the hands of the CIA, but at the hands of other journalists.

Renner is magnetic, handling Webb’s personal dilemmas, reporting skill and professional outrage with grace under pressure. Strong small performances by Paz Vega, Michael Sheen, Tim Blake Nelson, Ray Liotta and others add potent doses of flavor. Yet it’s not all talking heads; director Cuesta (L.I.E., TV’s Homeland) juggles ideas and drama with an even-handed realism and observation, allowing for visual expressions and even moments of quiet reflection to seep in. And where a less-skilled filmmaker would have turned in a bloated three-hour film, Cuesta does it all in a remarkable 112 minutes. It’s fresh enough to be hot off the presses.

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