Late Edition: 'State of Play'

By Cooper, Rand Richards | Commonweal, May 22, 2009 | Go to article overview

Late Edition: 'State of Play'


Cooper, Rand Richards, Commonweal


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 Point-Corp 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. Delia 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, Delia, 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 Delia 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. …

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