Big fedoras. Big stories. Deadlines. Glamour. Intrigue. Booze. The pretty girl. The whole nine yards.
Sure, there have been a bevy of silly films about reporters and journalists, from ‘To Die For’ with Nicole Kidman, ‘The Paper’ with Michael Keaton, and even ‘Mad City’ with Dustin Hoffman as a tabloid TV reporter cashing in on John Travolta’s sad story.
But the meatier films featuring journalists in central roles, with the stronger themes, about morality, the first amendment, and the truth, have really not been done since the mid-70’s, when we had Alan Pakula’s ‘All the President’s Men’ and even Paddy Chayevsky’s classic, ‘Network.’
Going back over time there was ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’, the 1947 Gregory Peck film whose protagonist was an investigative reporter documenting nascent anti-semitism.And in the late 1980’s there was ‘Network News’, an incisive take on the challenge of presenting responsible television reporting amidst a time of downsizing.There were great performances there by Albert Brooks, William Hurt, and of course Holly Hunter.
But having a journalist at the center of a story, a taut drama, well, that really hasn’t been done for a while.Really since “All the President’s Men.’And without making further reference, particularly since the contrivance here in State of Play doesn’t speak to a challenge to democracy in the way “President’s Men’ clearly did, what we have here is a decent drama that carries us through the two hours of film, and holds our attention up to the final shots of the newspaper presses used as closing credit video.
And in State of Play, there’s not one, but two star reporters sharing the limelight, and the byline.Both Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams parry and joust as beat reporters Cal McAffrey and Della Frye, one on the police beat, the other the celebrity blog side, each re-animated as investigative reporters when a series of seemingly disparate grisly deaths develop some common threads.And both as actors, and as characters, Crowe and McAdams play as this team of unequals, one bold, the other beautiful, one seasoned, one terribly callow, each challenging the other to dig deeper, report better, learn more, all in the quest for the truth.
And throughout this film, that truth is elusive.There are way too many twists and turns here.Most are good, some are just plain odd.While I particularly enjoy that there are several loose ends, as there are in real life, and certainly in real investigations, there are several that remain untied that would have been either figured out earlier with just one or two questions, or that are just implausible on their face.
But since this is Hollywood, that truth is found, and resolution is made, just in the nick of time.
But that never ending search for the truth, that sustains Crowe’s character as a journalistic paragon (mostly) and an omniscient scholar of human relations, is totally overplayed.It would have been good to dial it down a bit throughout.To avoid the heavy drama between Crowe and McAdams.To let us in earlier on some of the purported conspiracies that guide Crowe’s seen-it-all-before McAffrey and let him wrap his paper’s editor, Helen Mirren, around his puffy finger.
Sure, all of the big time Washington journalists would like to think they have the stones to operate as smoothly as Crowe.To have access to major players on Capitol Hill.To have ins with the command and rank and file at the police department.And to have the run of town as though they were the only game going.But there’s more to it, and it’s not that easy, even though State of Play would imply it is.
And for a blogger, McAdams’ Frye doesn’t do a whole lot of writing.It’s as though this film came out six years ago, when blogging was in an infancy.Now, it can be done in real time, and from anywhere, and there would have been more than just the traditional deadline writing that’s featured heavily in this film if the filmmakers really wanted to work in contemporary reporters and bloggers, and not just use their titles but not their actual roles.
It’s easy to criticize from the outside, particularly when a film tries to capture a field as familiar as journalism, yet as dated as the daily newspaper business.Crowe as McAffrey plays a man twenty years older than himself.McAdams plays a character her age, but with less knowledge or guile than anyone in that position would have to have to succeed.And even Helen Mirren’s editor, stolen straight out of the Ben Bradlee school of management as presented in President’s Men by Jason Robards, would have more than a small team working a story with the conspiracy angle tracked by our intrepid journalism duo.
State of Play is great entertainment.It hold and captivates, though it takes quite a bit on faith, and requires a significant level of trust from the audience to accept the final plot twist.Stick with it, though, as it’s good to see serious, well acted drama coming from the big screen.