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State of Play

4 stars out of 5

Cards on the table; the closest I ever came to blowing the lid off something was when I revealed the sneaky rehiring of a disgraced former power company executive, who was re-fired after my article appeared--and all I had to do was read the footnotes in the proxy statement.

I'm going to divide this review into two parts: about the movie qua journalism movie, then a few words about the movie as an entertainment.

By my ranking, it falls short of five stars on both fronts. As a journalism movie, it offers a few howlers, and a basic plot hole. As entertainment, it's fast-paced and entertaining, but not exactly thought-provoking or artistic.

There are two scenes in this film which guarantee it a place in the pantheon of journalism movies, both of which could be said to be paying homage to the past. The montage of the newspaper being printed which plays out under the end credits recalls the similar black and white montage which opened Frank Capra's 1928 classic black and white film The Power Of The Press, but of course this time the scene is in color and features modern equipment, including a newsprint delivery robot.

The other scene which guarantees the film immortality is a pale echo of Humphrey Bogart's, "That's the sound of a free press, baby," from Deadline USA, and William Conrad's, "and it only costs a nickel" speech from -30-. Universal has cleverly removed all trace of the script from the Internet, so I'll have to wait for the DVD to transcribe the speech, but Russell Crowe, as Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey lectures Ben Affleck as Rep.Stephen Collins with a speech that begins, "Why, because people don't read newspapers any more?" and ends with "printing the truth." It's a pale echo because it's short, both in terms of length and soaring rhetoric.

Also pale is the echo of the slammed doors that faced Woodward and Bernstein (or Hoffman and Redford, if you will) in All The President's Men. In this case, Rachel McAdams, playing Internet columnist Della Frye, conducts "real" reporting, in the face of slammed door after slammed door, hang up after hangup. While not as relentless as the cinematic original, it marks the first time in years a journalism movie has spent much quality time showing reporters doing actual reporting. Which is kind of amazing, since there is no sign of journalism in the résumés of screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray--except that Billy Ray did write another excellent recent journalism film, Shattered Glass, about the downfall of the New Republic's Stephen Glass (reviewed here).

Many of the old familiar journalism movie memes are on display here. One is the messy newsroom, with the messiest desk belonging to the protagonist. In an era when most screen heroes are middle or upper middle class--as are most journalists-Crowe plays McAffrey as an affable Irish drunk. The kind of person who couldn't get a job at a daily newspaper in any market larger than Waco, Texas, and certainly not at the Washington Post clone which is the Washington Globe in this film. The recent corporate takeover may seem "ripped from the headlines," but it too is venerable, most visibly in Deadline USA, where the new owners are shutting the paper down, as opposed to merely emasculating it, as they are in this film. The crusty managing editor is a journalism movie trope older than sound pictures, with the twist that it can now sometimes be a woman. It was Glenn Close in The Paper, and now it is Helen Mirren as Cameron Lynne in State Of Play, turning in another first class performance, in which she ravages the reporters in private and defends them in public, just like a real ME. And, when the story is hot enough, she tells the accountant to buzz off when he reminds her that holding the presses costs $20,000 an hour. OK, it's true only an idealized managing editors would ever do that, and almost none today, more's the pity.

On the other hand, the movie introduces at least two features that I have not seen before in a Hollywood journalism film: an Internet desk (whose columnist Della Frye is an equal partner in the reporting of the big story), and frequent references to the imminent collapse of the newspaper--not from a sale or merger, but just from the end of newspapers in general.

The engine that runs the story, alas, is a conflict of interest that would not be tolerated at any newspaper larger than a weekly shopper: Crowe, the central reporter on the story is best friend of and former roommate of the central figure, Affleck, and the managing editor knows it. A reporter might get away with this if he kept his management in the dark, but that's not how it's played here. In fact, R.B. Brenner of the Washington Post, who served as a journalism consultant on State of Play, says he told the filmmakers this was unrealistic. They decided the story was, with reference to this element, more important than fidelity to real-world journalistic practice. (Check out an audio interview with Brenner at the Washington Post site)

Strictly from the entertainment point of view, State of Play is a bit pat, but with a few nice twists. A young man is shot to death in an alley. A young woman jumps in front of a train. Turns out the murder and the suicide are related. The police don't want to talk, but as always, the reporter runs rings around the detectives. The woman is an aide to the senator, who admits, early on, that he was having an affair with his intern. But it turns out the reporter (is having? Once had?) an affair with the senator's wife as well. There are mercenaries, and they are certainly all more noble than most mercenaries I've ever heard of, and more cooperative with reporters. The reporters work hard to find the truth (even though the police tell them to lay off), and have the story put to bed when there is a sudden last minute twist. I don't do spoilers, so aside from telling you that the film doesn't end when it seems to, I won't tell you exactly what happens.

When it rains it pours; after months of no mainstream Hollywood journalism movies, State of Play opened April 17. The Soloist opens April 24; it features Steve Lopez, of the Los Angeles Times (Robert Downey,Jr,) writing about, and saving, a homeless but musically talented Jamie Foxx, and will be reviewed here as soon as possible.