Chuck Zlotnick
October 16, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

Crusading journalists in movies stand up to their editors, scream about ethics, slam down their phones, punch the photocopier, and beaver away for the truth. As irascible real-life reporter Gary Webb, Jeremy Renner checks all those boxes and more in the important but overdramatized Kill the Messenger. While working for the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, Webb pieced together a connection between the epidemic of crack cocaine on urban streets and the CIA. We discover the shocking evidence as he does — with assists from a rogues’ gallery of good actors including Andy Garcia, Barry Pepper, Michael Sheen, Tim Blake Nelson, and Ray Liotta — but the movie isn’t really about the drug war. As its unsubtle title suggests, Kill the Messenger indicts the government and media outlets for a smear campaign to discredit Webb.

Director Michael Cuesta (Homeland) includes just enough real news footage among the heavily scripted scenes to make you crave a documentary on Webb instead. A bonkers statement such as ”There has never been a conspiracy in this country” barked by an actual CIA big gun is more attention-grabbing than the schmaltz of Webb’s wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) whining the platitude ”Can’t you see what you’re doing to us?” The story of Webb is a tragedy — he died in 2004 of two gunshot wounds, which the coroner ruled a suicide — and the film is red with outrage. Justifiably. But by goosing the plot for dramatic effect and fitting a halo atop Webb’s head, it reduces the man to something that he wasn’t: a movie character. B-

112 minutes
Michael Cuesta
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