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We Americans like to think of ourselves as self-made people. Even if we don’t fall for the up-by-the-bootstraps myth, we like to think that at least our moral character and psychological interiority is our own. We may not be masters of our fate but we are at least captains of our souls.

Of course, this also is nonsense. Human beings are irreducibly social creatures, intertwined and interdependent with the social fabric in which they’re embedded. And nothing proves that better than how easily an individual can be shredded when that fabric turns against them.

That’s really what Kill The Messenger is about, at bottom. The film, which chronicles mid-90s the efforts of journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) to blow open a story about tacit CIA involvement in the U.S. crack epidemic, is ostensibly a throwback to 70s-style political thrillers. Its hero is a driven and troubled individual with a bit of a counter-cultural streak; the direction by Michael Cuesta favors handheld camerawork and a gritty, low-tech feel; and themes of political corruption, paranoia, and veiled threats in half-finished sentences are sprinkled throughout. But the 1970s thrillers also went beyond this, to the vertiginous experience of having the powers-that-be decide you need to be disposed of, either through intimidation, threats, character assassination, or career sabotage.

When we first meet him, Webb is working for the San Jose Mercury News in California, and has just finished an expose on asset forfeiture laws. The story shows off Webb’s recklessness intertwined with his deep sense of principle. He walks right in to the California pad of a drug dealer (Robert Patrick) and then barrels over the squeamish bourgeois moralism of his editor (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), even if the people being wronged here are drug dealers, they’re still being wronged.

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There’s also a personal side to this. When he buys his son (Matthew Lintz) a motorcycle without consulting his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), she relents affably enough. But there’s a slight “bull in a china shop” feel to the move. While he’s clearly an older and more mature man now, the film drops hints that Webb nearly destroyed his marriage once with that same recklessness. Renner balances all these notes in a fine and deeply sympathetic performance.

Then a strange and potentially massive story drops into Webb’s lap in the form of Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez), a massively successful drug dealer who is apparently also a protected government informant. Webb teams up with a grouchy lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson), pokes around Nicaragua, and discovers Blandon has been running his cocaine into the United States under the benevolently indifferent gaze of the CIA. In the States, the cocaine is manufactured into crack, sold, and the proceeds shipped back to Nicaragua to help fund Ronald Reagan’s proxy war against the Sandanista leftists.

For a while all this is pretty fun. The script tells its story in quick scenes and punchy, hard-hitting emotional notes. Renner and the filmmakers present Webb’s reporting with a certain devil-may-care panache, conjuring up the intrepid journalist tropes without being heavy handed. The editing is creative and the soundtrack makes good use of some late 90s rockers.

But then Webb publishes his story, and things go down hill rapidly. The CIA starts making calls, strange men in suits show up to rifle through Webb’s belongings, and stories attempting to debunk Webb’s work get fed to the Washington Post and The New York Times. One by one, Webb’s colleagues, his editor, and his boss (Oliver Platt) all abandon him. Webb’s past personal failings are dredged up in the nightly news, and his marriage is stretched to the breaking point. The CIA may be all thumbs when it comes to covert opps, as Webb bitterly notes, but it’s unrivaled at manipulating Americans’ base psychology.

This cloying fear that causes everyone to turn on Webb is that not really about self-interest, at least not in the rational or economic sense. Certainly, sticking by him will probably mean staying at the San Jose Mercury News forever. No glorious rises to the Washington Post or the New York Times. But no one’s going to get fired; they’re livelihoods aren’t at risk.

No, what’s going on is much more ape-brained than that; Webb is impure, polluted. As social animals, his colleagues and even his family can sense that remaining loyal to him risks exposing themselves to the taint. It’s a collective social-psyhcological force that Webb is really up against. The shamans of the American tribe have declared Webb unclean, and he is to be cast out of good society.

At one point a government bureaucrat (Michael Sheen) tells him “some stories are just too true to tell,” and Webb reacts with furious moralism, prompting a look of pity from the bureaucrat that’s almost too terrifying to bear.

Amidst all this, the genre demands of American cinema occasionally peak through. Webb gets his climactic and cathartic speech, and certain character arcs try to end on redemption and closure. But this is a sad story, and Kill The Messenger knows it, and the film ultimately sticks to its aesthetic, tonal, and moral guns. The last shot is sad and lyrical, and the final post-script is absolutely crushing.

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