Author’s Note: This piece originally appeared on my now-defunct blog, The Barren Regions. I wanted to include it here because it brought back memories of when I worked at a newspaper (and when I could still refer to myself as a “twenty-something”).
I recently rented the Russell Crowe suspense flick, State of Play. I wanted to watch it because the title intrigued me. I wish I could say the same for the plot.
Just kidding. Actually, the movie was OK, although unrealistic. Crowe plays a hard-nosed newspaper reporter who becomes ensnared in a D.C. murder mystery. He risks his life to uncover the truth — all in the name of getting the full story and informing the public.
That was the part I found unrealistic. I mean, c’mon, a journalist who actually works for a living? Get real. The most hustling you’ll see in a newsroom happens when someone accidentally leaves a box of doughnuts in the break area.
Other parts were all too real. Ben Affleck plays a conniving congressman. Helen Mirren plays a desk-pounding editor who hollers about deadlines and corporate responsibility and sits in a big office. Rachel McAdams plays an underpaid blogger who works at the same paper as Crowe.
In one scene, Crowe and Mirren sneer at how McAdams churns out gobs of copy for little pay while Crowe dawdles on his stories and earns twice as much. As a twenty-something budding journalist, I appreciate the realism (though truth be told, I don’t churn out tons of copy; I’m too busy eating doughnuts in the break room).
The film featured the usual twists and pulse-pounding moments you’d expect in a Hollywood mystery. On a simple level, it caters to everyday audiences who want to be entertained without investing a lot of thought (though it does require an investment a tad more significant than, say, The Proposal, where you’re better off leaving intellect at the door at focusing on Sandra Bullock’s behind instead).
On a deeper level, State of Play is a comment on journalism and an ode to the bygone era of true investigative reporting. A few scenes seemed to lament the ongoing transition of traditional print journalism to Web-based publishing.
In one scene toward the end, Crowe and McAdams — who’ve combined forces to tackle a huge political story — are about to sit down to compose their piece. Crowe tells McAdams he’s surprised she didn’t break the story on her blog and take all the glory.
She smiles and says something to the effect of, “A story this big needs to leave newsprint on readers’ hands.” (I say “to the effect of” because I can’t remember the exact quote; I was too busy focusing on McAdams’ behind. This seems to be an ongoing issue for me.)
The scene depicted the aura of romanticism surrounding newspapers and the types of reporters who dedicate their careers to Keeping the Public Infomed. I think many of us want to believe there’ll always be an overweight, chain-smoking, whiskey-slugging typeslinger in a stuffy newsroom somewhere who’ll muck through political sewage and societal refuse to uncover kernels of truth — the ones that keep elected officials honest and the general citizenry enlightened.
Unfortunately, that breed is dying out — probably because of all the whiskey, cigarettes and break-room doughnuts. Those old-time First Amendment custodians are being replaced by people like me who make our lives in the blogosphere writing mildly amusing humor columns about Hollywood movies and celebrity behinds.
The digital age may be phasing out newsprint, but it’s not necessarily smothering good journalism. State of Play gives audiences hope.
Throughout the film, Crowe treats McAdams as an apprentice. He helps her hone her investigative skills and teaches her other tricks and tips (including, I’m assuming, how to craft prose with precise and concrete wording, and not with vague, nonspecific terms such as “tricks and tips”).
As the film concludes we see that he’s effectively passed the torch — or the pen, if you will — to the next generation. McAdams starts out as a political gossip blogger, but Crowe gives her the tools necessary to pursue true investigative reporting. As a journalistic rite of passage, Crowe writes the duo’s long-awaited story but allows McAdams to click the “send” button to transmit the copy to press. (The film doesn’t mention if the story is ever edited, proofread or fact-checked; rather, it seems to go directly from Crowe’s computer to the front page of the paper. But that’s nitpicking, and really, who proofreads news stories these days anyway? Just count the number of typos in your local daily.)
Bottom line, State of Play was a thought-provoking film that delved into the untidy, tangled world of investigate journalism … as well as the untidy, tangled world of Russell Crowe’s hair. It’s a plea for young reporters to keep journalism’s spirit alive as the industry goes digital. Newsprint may be dying, but good reporting never should.
Of course, as an underpaid, twenty-something blogger, the lesson the film taught me is that investigative reporting requires real work. Unfortunately, I’m not interested in real work, so I’ll continue to leave the investigating stuff to the older generation. Perhaps later in my career an old-timer will pass the torch along to me — though I’d much prefer the cigarettes and whiskey.