Jeremy Renner turns in a brilliantly intense portrayal of an investigative reporter who is hung out to dry by both shadowy forces and his colleagues in this taut conspiracy thriller
The name Gary Webb may not create the same frisson of excitement as the revered Woodward and Bernstein, but he was the investigative reporter who claimed to have found a far bigger scandal than President Nixon's tortured machinations and lies over Watergate.
Webb was the journalist who alleged that the CIA was complicit in the spread of crack cocaine in US cities in the early Eighties, with the proceeds then used to arm the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua.
Alan J Pakula's superb Watergate thriller All the President's Men looms large over Kill the Messenger, and director Michael Cuesta isn't afraid to pay homage - there are heated newsroom stand-offs, trips down South to meet dodgy characters, and even a-heart-in-your mouth scene in an underground car park.
Pakula's movie zoned in on 'Woodstein' (as Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee liked to call them) and their dogged pursuit of the story. Likewise with this late addition to the great sub-genre of conspiracy thriller.
As it says on the masthead, as it were, this film is about the messenger and not the message. It works extremely well as a character study, a character assassination by shadowy forces, and also as a damning examination of how the pursuit of truth by journalists often becomes muddied and choked by relentless spin, coercion and outright threats by powerful interests.
Renner, who also produced, is riveting as Webb, the reporter on the San Jose Mercury News who, in the mid-Nineties, stumbles across what appears to be the greatest American scandal since Watergate, perhaps greater given the amount of lives and communities destroyed by the crack cocaine epidemic. Taking Deep Throat's advice to heart, he 'follows the money', and claims to uncover a trail leading from President Reagan to the US' most-deprived ghettoes.
Webb built his story methodically using such antiquated journalistic means as painstaking research, making connections and old-fashioned burning of shoe leather. When his explosive exposé is published (we also see it being slowly uploaded on screen via a groaning dial-up modem), he is a hero, feted by his colleagues and nominated for awards. But forces are gathering against him.
A smear campaign begins and The Washington Post, the august organ which blew the lid off Watergate a generation before, is depicted as little more than Pravda. Seen here as being peeved to be scooped by a small fry, it sets about dismantling Webb's story, fomenting panic in the Mercury newsroom and in the wider US newspaper and TV news industry.
This is when Cuesta's film is at its best. Renner's portrayal of Webb as a coolly-principled professional and loving family man becomes that of an isolated crank, cast adrift by his colleagues and slandered, it's suggested, by the State. At one heated editorial meeting, he is tellingly warned that "corporate" is getting jittery about his exposé.
Cuesta (who previously directed twitchy TV drama Homeland) directs with real urgency - his movie belongs firmly in the tradition of the Seventies conspiracy thriller. There are some nifty turns by Andy Garcia as a grizzly and affable drug overlord, Ray Liotta as a tough government fixer, Barry Pepper as a craven defence lawyer, and Michael Sheen, who plays a petrified Washington wonk who warns Webb that "some stories are just too true to tell".
Set on the very cusp of the digital revolution in the mid-Nineties, Kill the Messenger is also a fascinating film about just how much reportage has changed. In our modern age of speculative rolling news and incessant online babble, this penetrating tale of determined journalistic spadework seems almost quaint.
Of course, Gary Webb's reputation was to undergo another reappraisal, but by then it was too late.