Sunday, January 30, 2011

State of Play

As a working journalist, I'm part of an industry in transition. With the rise of the Internet, people are relying less on newspapers for their news, and with a decline in advertising revenue, many publications are in dire straights and laying off reporters, photographers, and editors. Technology has certainly helped us collect and distribute information more efficiently and in greater quantities than ever, but we still haven't figured out a reliable business model to make money off of it.

Among the many things it gets right, State of Play (2009) captures this state of modern journalism and the drive by many journalists to seek out the truth while being squeezed by a transforming world. State of Play, a remake of British miniseries, depicts the challenges of today's news media while being a complex political thriller in its own right.

A female assistant to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) dies on a Washington D.C. subway, and when it's revealed he had been having an affair with her, speculation runs rampant that he drove her to suicide. Collins turns to his college friend Cal McAffey (Russell Crowe), a reporter for a Washington newspaper and tells he believes she was killed to destroy his reputation. Collins is chair on a congressional committee investigating PointCorp, a private defense contractor that stands to lose billions if Collins keeps its from getting a government contract. McAffey teams with blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) to connect the dots and find the truth.

I tried counting all the ethical violations of journalists in this film: lying, withholding evidence, confidential sources, speed at the expense of fact-checking, conflicts of interest, secretly tape-recording interviews, blackmail, and others, I'm sure. I'm not saying the movie paints an unfavorable portrait of journalists, but it does raise questions about their actions and conduct. Many journalists face similar issues on a daily basis, although not to the extreme as shown here. It's nice to see a movie illustrate a more knowledgeable and balanced view of reporters. Many movies only depict them as spineless sleazebags and pathological liars only existing to make life miserable for the heroes. While reporters sometimes have to make questionable decisions, State of Play shows how those actions must be weighed against the public's need to be informed.

The movie moves along fairly quickly, mostly concerned with covering the developments of the plot. I am curious to see the original version to find out what was removed or condensed for time purposes. There's not much room for characters, but they work well enough. The parts are well cast, and the actors succeed in bringing them to life. My favorite interaction is between Crowe's old-school reporter and McAdams' new age blogger because that changing of guard is playing out in my profession. He dismisses her initially as merely a blogger and opinion writer and not a reporter, but she's determined to prove her mettle.

I can't say the film is perfect. My biggest complaint was how I figured out the angle it was going for once the elements were established. Rather than progressing with revelation after revelation, McCaffey lays out his idea of how it all connects and then proceeds finding evidence. Then of course, once everything looks like it's certain one way, the filmmakers try to pull the rug out from you with a last-minute twist. The twist would be surprising if so many other movies hadn't already pilfered the formula. It felt kind of tacked on.

State of Play is a solid thriller containing insight into the journalism profession. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but it is top-notch entertainment.

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