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Journalist martyr's war on drugs

  • 23 October 2014

Kill the Messenger (M). Director: Michael Cuesta. Starring: Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt. 112 minutes

In 1996, American journalist Gary Webb, writing for the San Jose Mercury News, claimed the CIA and US State Department during the Regan administration had supported the smuggling of crack cocaine into the US, as a way to help fund Contra rebels against the revolutionary government of Nicaragua. This 'dark alliance', Webb claimed, contributed significantly to the crack epidemic in Los Angeles, and fuelled the War on Drugs that Regan himself famously escalated.

Although subsequent formal enquiries proved many of Webb's claims accurate, at the time Webb himself was made a pariah. He died of an apparent suicide in 2004, but he'd been a martyr to the cause long before then. His 1998 book, Dark Alliance, formed the basis of a biography by Nick Schou in 2006, which together have been adapted into a new, somewhat fictionalised account of Webb's ill-fated crusade, titled Kill the Messenger after Schou's book.

It stars Renner as the put-upon Webb, portrayed here as a fearless journalist and flawed but basically decent family man, who must keep an eye on simmering tensions in his home life while trying to persuade his sympathetic editor (Winstead) and somewhat more skittish publisher (Platt) to have the courage of his convictions. As his investigations bring him closer to the shocking truth, the inevitable, insidious backlash tests his alliances both professional and personal.

The film opens with a news footage mash-up that shows the war on Communism dovetail into the war on drugs, to underline the irony of Webb's revelations. It's not subtle, but little about the film is. Its exploration of Webb's home life, for example, where the blight of a past indiscretion humanises the character and provides fodder for some cheesy domestic drama, is heavy handed and clashes with, rather than complementing, the film's much more compelling central plot.

This is a problem largely with the scripting, rather than the performances, which are uniformly good. Renner's Webb especially is both tough and vulnerable, and does not so much unravel but is ravaged by the winds that conspire against him. His reputation brought low by the efforts to discredit him, he receives an award for which he was earmarked before things went sour. Wearily, boldly, he stands and stares his peers and his disgrace in the face, and delivers a stock speech about journalism and Truth, with stirring