April 28, 2009


The new suspense movie, "State of Play," is an ode to old-fashioned journalism, boasting a stellar international cast that doesn't disappoint: Russell Crowe (Aussie), Rachel McAdams (Canuck), Ben Affleck (Yankee) and Helen Mirren (Brit). (Jason Bateman is just outstanding in his small, sole comic relief role as an unscrupulous, two-bit middleman involved in a game that's way over his head.) The film is self-consciously reminiscent of "All the President's Men," and even utilizes the Watergate building. Although in the beginning it looks like newspaper journalism (Crowe) is going to be pitted against new media (online blog/website) journalism (McAdams), the two join forces to get the story the only way it can be got: by pounding the pavement, taking personal risks, and talking to sources. Where the story eventually shows up is secondary to the actual content.

The story keeps a tense pace without overdoing it, either in the soundtrack or in the sparse action scenes. Everything—the multiple crimes under investigation and the way the story is gathered—teeters on what's legal, what's ethical, what does our American society stand for, anyway? The tale is intricate without being complicated. Above all, "State of Play" is humane. It's about interweaving relationships and loyalties vis-à-vis Washington power and war profiteering. When things get too cold and rough and ugly, one character will always exhibit a piece of humanity that reminds everyone why we do any of what we do, and what the ultimate standards are: marriage, friendship, love of country, the truth. Everyone is tempted to sell out in some way, including the head of the "Washington Globe" newspaper (Helen Mirren). To speak about innocent civilians as collateral damage is decried. And of the four casualties swept up in an expedient string of murders, one is achingly described as "simply delivering pizzas." In fact, what sets off the entire investigation is a telltale emotion: on camera, a married Congressman (Affleck) breaks down in tears over a female staff member's death, and the whole world instantly recognizes they were having an affair. Plans never go according to plan because people keep being human and messing them up (e.g., falling in love with someone you're supposed to be spying on).

Russell Crowe's veteran journalist manifests the constant conflict of interest that plagues every journalist in their efforts to be objective and truthful. They, too, are humans with their own flaws, alliances, dalliances, and ulterior motives as they struggle to perform for the public the job and service they love and are driven to do. The indispensable role of the media, the fourth (and possibly fifth) estate, in our democracy is underlined in bold: "I think people know the difference between [cow patties] and news and are grateful that someone cares enough to tell the story." The image of a whole newsroom reverently waiting while a lone reporter types out an important scoop also serves this purpose. The closing credits are of the printing/production phase of a newspaper, an institution we've taken for granted and relied on for so long, but which may become archival footage very soon.

At a certain point, we begin wondering who is really more "dangerous" to people's personal agendas: politicians or the media? (Remember Governor Blago attempting to make sure reporters critical of him at the Chicago Sun-Times got fired?) The film reminds us that every year there are many journalists around the world who DO give their lives for their profession. "State" also brings out the fact that police and reporters are often in a very similar business, neck and neck in their progress on a case.

The Congressman is involved in a hearing regarding "Pointcorp," a private security company made up of ex-military that is raking in the do-re-mi in Iraq. (Blackwater, anyone?) Not only that, but Pointcorp is poised to be the face of a coming privatized Homeland Security, law enforcement, domestic intelligence infrastructure. (Conspiracy theory? Check out Naomi Klein's book "The Shock Doctrine.")

The "State" viewing experience is marred only by a few minor logic gaps. An ending twist points to the fact that stories are rarely finished. There's always more, another layer, deeper connections. Rated PG-13, there's hardly any profanity, foul language, violence and no nudity, even though these would have been germane. A "movie for grown ups" (as Entertainment Weekly puts it). Truly grown up. So often "adult" is made to be synonymous with what it actually adolescent.

"State of Play" made me worry even more about something I've been worrying a lot about lately: our desperate need for trained, paid, accountable journalists who are employed by an impartial party to uncover stories, goings-on, potential and actual shenanigans at the local, state and federal level. This has been our system for quite some time, and it has worked rather well (albeit that newspapers in general are left-leaning--but everyone knows that). Fabricate a story? Do something unethical? Get paid off? Promote a product? Can't tell hard news from soft news? Lose your job. It doesn't so much matter whether news is in print or online. The only problem with online is that everything is FREE and you only get what you DON'T pay for.

A free [not under government coercion] (and serious) press is essential in a democracy.

Another sore need we have is that of NEWS LITERACY—training children, teens and adults how to "read" and "read through" the news: www.thenewsliteracyproject.org


Why don't characters ever TIPTOE in parking garages when they're being pursued by murderous thugs???? They always sound like woolly mastodons crashing through the underbrush! Do they all have some kind of sick death wish?

Am I the only one who can't take Jeff Daniels seriously any more after "Dumb and Dumber"???

Don't think we don't notice that believers are often the villains, Hollywood. The only mention of God-fearingness in this movie is by a hypocritical scumbag.

The ultimate barb to the heart: "I would never do that to you."


So why does Hollywood keep making movies about newspapermen? The short answer is that Hollywood loves a good yarn. For much of its 100-plus-year history, whenever Hollywood has portrayed journalists, it seems to have taken the advice of the frontier newspaper editor in John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," who said: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."


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