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Journalist’s mission makes compelling drama

Jeremy Renner plays journalist Gary Webb in “Kill the Messenger.”
Jeremy Renner plays journalist Gary Webb in “Kill the Messenger.”
Roger Moore McClatchy-Tribune

“Kill the Messenger,” the film about journalist Gary Webb’s shocking newspaper stories that connected the Reagan-era CIA to America’s crack epidemic, shows just how hard it is to film investigative journalism as a drama, and get it right.

The film about a reporter destroyed by a story that turned out to be one of the great scoops of all time feels muted, more compelling than riveting.

But Jeremy Renner dazzles as Webb, giving him both the swagger of a guy willing to take on the CIA and its media friends, and the nervous worry that he’s in over his head.

His editor at the San Jose Mercury News (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) warns him, “We’re not the L.A. Times.”

“We’re not SMALL time, either,” Webb fires back.

Webb had already broken the first stories on police seizures of private property in drug cases when a drug dealer’s girlfriend (Paz Vega) approached him. The film shows Webb cleverly feeding questions to her beau’s defense attorney (Tim Blake Nelson) as the lawyer goes after a highly placed informant in the dealer’s trial.

“You thought you were getting a piece of cheese,” the Latin drug moll purrs, “I just gave you the mouse!”

That makes the twitchy prosecutor (Barry Pepper) blink, and that points Webb to other low-hanging fruit, all of whom point to the Central Intelligence Agency providing planes and guns to the people then-President Reagan praised as “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers,” opportunists who flooded America’s inner cities with cocaine.

The street dealer (Michael K. Williams, excellent) complains that he couldn’t “keep up with the supply.”

“You mean demand.”

“No. SUPPLY.” The cheap coke through Nicaragua, where Reagan’s Col. Oliver North was funding an insurgency against the leftist government, meant that poor Americans could afford cocaine. The crack epidemic began.

Oliver Platt plays the paper’s managing editor, the one who complains that “this was 10 years ago” (the movie is set in ’96-97), but who relishes “The Big One” that Webb breaks.

Then the story turns, showing how Webb’s well-financed, well-connected competition – the Los Angeles Times and especially the Washington Post – used their CIA sources to attack the story and Webb personally.

Director Michael Cuesta (“L.I.E.”) ratchets up the energy by chasing Webb with a jumpy hand-held camera, playing up Webb’s touchy meetings with government insiders (Michael Sheen), an imprisoned Nicaraguan drug lord (Andy Garcia, oozing charm) and a Ray Liotta character that seems inspired by Donald Sutherland’s Master Conspirator in Oliver Stone’s “J.F.K.” That bit of the tale makes it seem that we’re seeing all this through Webb’s increasingly paranoid eyes.

The personal cost to Webb and his family is also squeezed in, with Rosemarie DeWitt as the wary wife leery of her husband’s obsessions and mistakes and Lucas Hedges as the adoring son who sees Dad’s flaws for the first time.

Like the “Dark Alliance” stories themselves, “Kill the Messenger” feels leaky and a little incomplete. A screen version of a scandal with real people in it, naming some names and changing others, is never going to wholly satisfy.

But Renner’s performance – beginning with bluster and descending into twitchy paranoia – sells it and makes us fret for every “messenger” who’s suddenly the target of the spotlight himself.

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