As I write this it is 7:37 a.m., and I’ve just finished reading the morning paper. I started at 7:31 a.m. And I’m no speed reader. Our city’s paper, the Hartford Courant, once arguably one of the better dailies in the nation, has cut more than half its staff in the past few years. Recently it announced the departure of both editor and managing editor—and dissolved the latter job altogether. The paper continues to shed weight like a contestant on The Biggest Loser. There’s almost no national news; cultural reportage is piped in from Chicago and L.A.; the “Living” section consists of tidbits about celebrities, cute dog photos sent in by readers, a weather map, and five pages of obituaries.
The death throes of newspapers are harder to watch for knowing that the wound was self-inflicted. A decision was made to offer free content via a revolutionary new technology, and figure out how to pay for it later. Well, later is now, and as Frank Rich observed in the May 10 New York Times, they still haven’t figured it out. Titling his column “The American Press on Suicide Watch,” Rich sounded the alarm. “We can’t know what is happening behind closed doors at corrupt, hard-to-penetrate institutions in Washington or Wall Street,” he wrote, “unless teams of reporters armed with the appropriate technical expertise and assiduously developed contacts are digging night and day.” The Web may never be able to pay for that kind of reporting—yet it is killing the print newspapers that do.
This worrisome paradox drives State of Play, a movie that, together with All the President’s Men, bookends the era of heroic investigative journalism. The scene again is Washington, where two intrepid reporters set forth to sniff out low corruption in high places. This time the nefarious plot concerns a Halliburton-like defense subcontractor, PointCorp, which is being investigated by a committee chaired by an ambitious congressman, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). When Collins’s lead researcher, an attractive young staffer, dies in an apparent subway suicide, the event reveals an intricate web of crimes that leads back to PointCorp and a dark scheme to monopolize the privatization of national defense and homeland security. “This is $30 or $40 billion annually,” one informant breathlessly muses. “It’s the Muslim terror gold rush.” Of course, $40 billion isn’t what it used to be—not even a year ago, when State of Play was filmed. But you get the idea.
Playing Cal McAffrey, the veteran Washington Globe reporter assigned to the story, Russell Crowe is an avatar of scruffiness. His hair long and none too clean, he drives a beat-up old Saab, guzzles whisky, and crashes glitzy Georgetown events in a frazzled winter coat resembling something a maid once wore. When he cooks at home, he makes mashed potatoes. Get it? The man is not exactly up-to-date. He’s all beat up, like journalism itself. But he’s the real deal.
Cal’s slovenly authenticity sets him in contrast with the glam superficiality of the young colleague who horns in on the story. Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) writes a gossip blog for the paper, and approaches him to inquire whether Congressman Collins—who happens to be an old college friend of Cal’s—was sleeping with his aide. “Gee, Della, I don’t know,” Cal answers. “I’d have to read a couple of blogs before I could form an opinion on that.” He oozes sarcastic disdain for her tabloid-style gossip-mongering; but his beleaguered editor, played by Helen Mirren, is being pushed hard by new corporate owners to promote the Web side of the business, and Della is the wave of the future. “She’s hungry, she’s cheap, and she churns out copy every hour,” Mirren scolds.
State of Play is not a great movie. Presenting the newspaperman vs. blogger-chick theme in as high-concept a fashion as possible, Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) and his screenwriters depict Cal as a kind of walking tribute to paper. His newsroom cubicle is a mountain of books and notebooks, clippings, scribbled-on scraps, paper bags, and half-eaten sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. He even drinks whisky from paper cups. We get the idea: the best journalism arises from the creative mess of a life passionately dedicated to scribbling on paper. But does blogger Della really have to be perpetually unable to find a pen? And once she is won over to Cal’s kind of dogged investigation, does she have to start cutting out clippings and leaving half-eaten sandwiches lying around...and get a less expensive hairdo?
State of Play indulges these topical clichés at its own cost. Its journalism montages—thrilling three decades ago in All the President’s Men—are so familiar by now as to be almost funny: doors slammed in faces, whispered conversations, slips of paper passed furtively on street corners, phone calls with furious scribbling on spiral-bound note pads, all set to whirling, pounding music. And the conspiracy Cal and Della uncover is a parody of right-wing villainy, with a final plot twist that doubles down on the treachery and stretches credibility to the bursting point.
This isn’t meant to be 60 Minutes, of course, and as a thriller the film has its effective moments. Its mood and look are satisfyingly ominous, right from the briskly violent opening, in which a terrified young man is chased through the nighttime streets, then gunned down, assassination-style, in an alley by a man carrying a steel briefcase. Danger feels pervasive in this D.C. Passengers descend into the bomb-shelter-like tunnels of the Metro as if being lowered toward their doom. Rodrigo Prieto’s paranoia-inducing cinematography combines eavesdropping camera angles with glimpsed shots of people glancing suspiciously. And who is it, really, in those ubiquitous black helicopters overhead?
The aura of power-mongering intrigue makes for highly effective cameo roles, especially Jeff Daniels as a corrupt senator and Jason Bateman as a wheedling sleazebag of a political spin doctor. As for Crowe, he has less to do here than usual, his performance mostly a matter of exuding an air of knowing, jaded defeat while trading sarcastic banter with Della. In the end, of course, Blogger Girl is won over, even delivering a sentimental pitch for newspapers. “A piece this big—people should probably have newsprint on their hands when they read it, don’t you think?” Yes, we do. In the final scene, the entire newsroom watches reverently as Cal types out his article and hits the Send button on his computer.
The closing credits play out to a minidocumentary showing what happens next: how newspapers get his article into our hands tomorrow morning. We see the photographic and printing processes; the enormous rolls of paper; the presses, then the rivers of print flashing by, the finished papers conveyed on those moving racks, up and out, like something being harvested, finally to be loaded into trucks. The sequence is strangely moving, in a valedictory way. Amid the relentless march of innovation there comes a point when a particular technology suddenly seems so antiquated, you can hardly believe it. Cut down trees, chop and press them into immense sheets of paper, run the paper through colossal printing presses, load the enormous bulk into trucks, and ship it all over kingdom come in the middle of the night? Are you kidding me?
State of Play catches the last gasp of journalism as we know it. “The crisis consists precisely in the fact,” wrote the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in a much different context, “that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” The newspaper I hold in my hand is already vintage, an artifact. Like so many others, I wonder what is coming next. If real news is to be part of it, then—to quote Frank Rich again—“the time will soon arrive for us to put up or shut up. Whatever shape journalism ultimately takes in America, make no mistake that in the end we will get what we pay for.”