State of Play Chizfilm Movie Reviews
May 5, 2009


State of Journalism Underlies “State of Play”

by Jonathan Chisdes


As I was driving to the theatre to see the movie “State of Play” I heard on the radio that some people are shocked—utterly shocked—that a major metropolitan newspaper like The Boston Globe is on the verge of ceasing to exist. But the precarious state of contemporary print journalism should come as no surprise to anyone who spends time surfing the internet news sites and trolling the blogosphere, which have become far more popular than any traditional newspaper. There are many reasons for this, of course; not the least of which is the ease and rapidity of electronic news writing and distribution. Predictions of the imminent demise of print journalism are no secret.

But I did find it an interesting coincidence that the movie I was about to see was set at a fictional newspaper with a very similar name to the real Boston paper, The Washington Globe, which was facing a financial crisis due to the popularity of its own website. The newspaper’s editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), is tasked by her new corporate bosses to increase the paper’s profitability. One of the things this means, of course, is giving sex scandal stories a higher priority than serious political corruption stories because they sell more copies.

This is the atmosphere which underlies the movie and motivates two of its key characters as they struggle between the necessity to make their paper money and the ethical responsibilities of being professional investigative reporters.

“State of Play” is a political thriller—the kind that starts with what appears to be a simple murder, clues connect it to a shadowy international security firm, and then the trail leads into the hallowed halls of Congress. But the focus of the film is really on the journalists, Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and Della Frey (Rachel McAdams), who follow these leads and must solve the mystery before the newspaper’s deadline.

Overall, “State of Play” is a relatively good political thriller. Some of the elements are a bit far-fetched and a few of the plot points are too coincidental or confusing. But in general it’s an entertaining story and it does deal with some important issues that our society is facing today, such as corporate intrusion into all aspects of our world including the military, the government, and the media. I only wish the film had gone further in addressing these issues.

As I said, it begins with a murder. Actually, a couple of murders. One of the victims happens to be the aide of Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), a representative from Pennsylvania who is chairing hearings that are investigating the private firm Pointcorp which had been hired by the military to perform security and other tasks in countries that the US is occupying. (Obviously, they are a fictional version of Blackwater, Haliburton, and KBR.)

It turns out that the aide who was killed was actually having an affair with Stephen. It also turns out that Stephen and Cal had been college roommates many years ago and have remained friends ever since.

By the way, if you are wondering whether or not there is a conflict-of-interest in having Cal investigate his friend Stephen, you are not alone. Editor Lynne wonders the same thing. When she asks Cal this, he stops for a second, thinks, and answers simply, “No.” That apparently solves that issue.

I won’t go into all the details of the conspiracy, especially because this is the kind of movie in which things are not always what they seem to be. Also, I must confess, I did miss a few of the key plot elements, especially toward the end, as twist was added upon twist. Maybe they just went by too fast; or maybe it was me. I did at least get the big picture and understood, at the end, who was the bad guy even if I did miss the clue which told me how we knew.

The acting, for the most part, was adequate. It’s a plot-driven piece, so it doesn’t really matter that there wasn’t that much depth to the characters or that I didn’t really believe, for example, that Ben Affleck and Russell Crowe could have been college roommates—it’s not that they are eight years apart in age, rather it was the lack of chemistry between them. And Rachel McAdams didn’t have to do much other than look good, but she did that fine. In addition, seasoned actors like Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels (who plays another congressman), and Robin Wright Penn (who plays Stephen’s wife), didn’t add much excitement.

The one exception was Jason Bateman who played a very dynamic and narcissistic lobbyist. He stole the show in every scene he was in. Too bad he wasn’t in more.

But I guess the one major point that I really have to take issue with the film is its insistence that there is something inherently superior in daily ink-on-newsprint papers, as opposed to continually updated websites. This point is argued several times and the final scene, as the credits roll, glorifies the printing press; the implication is that there is more substance in print journalism than in its electronic form.

With this I disagree. I know you might say I’m rather biased in this matter, for obvious reasons, but from my point of view, the medium is just that, a medium. It is the substance of the message that counts, not whether it is being read on a piece of paper or on a computer screen. The internet makes communication quicker and easier. How much ink and paper are wasted on substance-less trash; how many important news stories have been broken by bloggers! Does it really matter whether the information comes as ink on paper or bytes on a hard-drive?

Yes, it is quite possible that newspapers like The Boston Globe will soon disappear from our world. But a whole new frontier of electronic journalism, delivering the written word at the speed of light, will replace them. Should we embrace an exciting new future or mourn the passing of an old institution?

I guess it’s an issue worthy of debate. But, at least to me, it is far less important an issue than that of corporate mercenaries like Blackwater and Haliburton taking advantage of the government and committing abuses for which they are above the law, all in the name of profit and exploitation. To me, that’s the real story here. And I’m sorry to say that, on this issue, “State of Play” buries the lead. (And so did I.)

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