At one point in the clunky speak-truth-to-power drama "Kill the Messenger," a source tells a reporter, "Some stories are just too true to tell." It's a premise the protagonist -- San Jose Mercury News senior investigative reporter Gary Webb -- refuses to accept. But the comment conjures the thought that not every true story benefits from being retold in the medium of film.
The movie should be of particular interest to Bay Area audiences. Based on Webb's series of articles in the Mercury that were later published as a book: "Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion" -- as well as on his colleague Nick Schou's book, "Kill the Messenger," written after Webb's suicide -- the film follows Webb as he investigates the CIA's involvement in domestic crack cocaine sales that are funding the rebels in Nicaragua. More so, though, Peter Landesman's script chronicles the toll of Webb's reporting on his career and personal life.
The film opens in 1996, with Webb cracking a drug forfeiture story that has the unintended consequence of rustling up a much larger reveal. Out of the woodwork come sources claiming that the U.S. government used a Nicaraguan dealer to move four tons of cocaine from there to here. This tip of the iceberg leads crusading reporter Webb to unearth the CIA's direct involvement, corroborated in part by Nicaraguan drug smuggler Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia).
The fallout of the CIA program includes the crack epidemic felt most deeply in South Central L.A., which makes Webb's story particularly explosive once published by the Mercury in print, and -- in an early show of viral online impact -- on its website. But even as Webb basks in his success, he knows he has been warned: not only by a sympathetic Beltway insider (Michael Sheen) but also by the CIA, which clearly if implicitly threatens Webb's family, including his wife (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) and eldest son (Lucas Hedges).
Cuesta's credits as director of "L.I.E." and the "Homeland" pilot for Showtime attract an impressive ensemble of supporting players (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt as editors, Paz Vega as an oversexed source) and one-scene ponies (Garcia, Sheen, Barry Pepper, Richard Schiff, Robert Patrick, Ray Liotta, Michael K. Williams), but it's Renner who humbly carries the film on his shoulders and surprisingly -- given the story's indignation-stirring sociopolitical implications -- makes the best case for the story's resonance as a human one.
For all this, and to its detriment, "Kill the Messenger" ain't an Oliver Stone film. Rather than a fiercely intelligent, live-wire exposé, the well-intentioned picture comes across as weak-tea drama that never fully justifies its docudramatic form. By the time Cupertino gets depicted as some kind of backwater to which Webb is at one point banished, local multiplex-goers will smell something rotten in Cinemark.
Rated R for language and drug content. One hour, 52 minutes.