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Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

A failed eulogy to print media in ‘State of Play’

Russell Crowe in State of Play, directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland)
Russell Crowe in "State of Play," directed by Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland")

Everyone knows it. Print journalism will (lamentably) soon encounter its bereavement in old compost piles, recycle bins and prepubescent pyromaniac’s basement laboratories all across the country.

Many newspapers are now transitioning (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the latest victim) to exclusive web content because their business model is no longer profitable.

This transition has produced a strong friction between old and new, traditional and avant-garde, print and web that a screenwriting team led by Tony Gilroy (“Duplicity, “Michael Clayton”) has keenly identified for Kevin Macdonald’s (“The Last King of Scotland”) new film “State of Play.”

Keenly identifying it, however, is not enough. You have to do something meaningful with it.

Instead, “State of Play” presents an unbelievable and clichéd film that miserably fails to do any justice to the print media establishment I am lucky to have been a part of for the past few years.

It has everything for those of you who want a little mindless entertainment: adultery, conspiracy, politics, corporation bashing, murder, romance, journalists-turned-detectives, and, of course, that bitter rivalry between print journalists and blogger-journalists.

Oh, and get this: they file it under the sexy genre of “suspense-thriller”: whatever that means. I think I’d go for the even more passé categorization: “it’s a film about everything and nothing,” emphasis on the latter.

All of that gushy stuff enumerated above crumbles at the click of a “send” button, leaving behind a strong sense of futility. Why the introduction of these superficially captivating characters in the first place?

The first one we meet is Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), a traditionally schooled, weathered investigative journalist for the Washington Globe: or the Boston Post, who knows?: who has several murky political/personal ties, but, nonetheless, gets the job done.

The next one is congressman Steven Collins (Ben Affleck), a dirty-handed, adulterous yet attractive and sly businessman whose military ties to a Blackwater-like corporation get the better of him.

Finally, we meet Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), the blogger-turned-investigator upcoming hotshot at the Globe who has no idea what she has just gotten herself into.

Cal’s best friend: in the longing, I-haven’t-seen-you-forever style: is Collins, who arrives at his house in the middle of the night wanting to have some guy talk. As any terrible reporter would do, Cal channels the conversation towards what he wants to hear rather than what Collins wants to tell him.

For this reason alone (and maybe several others), over an hour-and-a-half is wasted undoing what a good reporter wouldn’t have done. The plot thereafter sticks faithfully to a detective narrative the produces an unbelievable twist every few scenes.

What’s more interesting than the plot, an extremely contrived, bleak onion whose layers are peeled back with each piece of new evidence (evocative of “Duplicity” and “The International”), is the film’s nostalgic take on print journalism and embracing glance toward blogger journalism. Cal and Della only really get along when the latter’s perspicacity submits to the former’s uncompromising ego.

Though Cal mostly gets it right, Della somehow keeps up while trudging through the trite symbolism: also an exercise in self-importance: of print journalism alive: the murky waters of “imbedded-ness,” the fact-checking as a tool for probing deeper into the story, and the calculated “see you tomorrow everyone” that reminds the newsroom how close knit they are.

Maybe that’s not terribly interesting to the 99 percent of non-journalists out there, but, honestly, that’s all this movie has.

The tension between print journalists and bloggers is aptly captured by that Stephen King quote that goes something like ‘one generation’s nightmare is the next generation’s sociology.’

Perhaps he should’ve written the screenplay instead.

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  • B

    Becquer Medak-SeguinMay 8, 2009 at 12:23 am

    Great point. Though I haven’t seen it, I’m sure the BBC series was a far better appraisal of print journalism (or journalism in general) than this terrible Hollywood adaptation. Kevin Macdonald’s first film, “The Last King of Scotland,” was carried by individual performances. Without Forest Whitaker or James McAvoy (who didn’t really do that great of a job), the film would not have received the sort of acclaim that it did; I think it’s safe to say that this film would not have been viewed by as many people as it has without its award-winning cast. Moreover, it feels like a poor facsimile of “Duplicity” and “The International.” Hopefully Hollywood will get more creative as they year treads on.

  • N

    NemoMay 7, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    The funny– or sad– thing is that the original miniseries got by quite well without trying to make any poorly thought-out statements about the death of print journalism (or about the dinosaurs who supposedly champion it. Adapt or perish: you understand that, whilst ditching the “fifteen-year-old computer”– hands down, the stupidest conceit in the entire film– or you die). And Della and Cal were competent, complex characters, too, not just a doe-eyed newbie and a chunky cartoon, respectively.