Resting at the heart of State of Play (2009) is not so much the personal relationships of the characters – who are mostly forgettable save for Crowe’s Cal McAffrey – or the grand (and oddly relevant) political conspiracy involving the Blackwater imitator PointCorp, but rather the struggle facing the newspaper itself. McAffrey, a rugged, rough-around-the-edges reporter is as much a relic of the old journalistic “print only” days as the paper he works at, the Globe, a fictionalized version of the Wall Street Journal, replete with its new owner “Media Corps.”
In one scene he brags loudly about his “fifteen-year-old computer” while complaining about the Globe’s political blogger, and McAffrey’s later compatriot, Della (Rachel McAdams). Later we see him punching numbers into a Blackberry; and still later, after whipping together some instant mashed potatoes in his clothes and paper-strewn bachelor pad, typing on a very modern Apple laptop, rendering his earlier complaint – “She could launch a Russian satellite with the gear she’s got” – rather silly.
Nevertheless, the crossroads of New and Old media are vital to understanding the film. In their first encounter, Cal britstles at his online co-worker when she inquires into the possible love affair between Cal’s friend, the young congressmen Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), and his recently deceased researcher, with the contemptuous parting line: ““I’ll need to read a few blogs in order to form an opinion.”
The two then embark on some real journalism, digging into the shady underbelly of the insidious private/public world of modern mercenarism [pdf]. Della is schooled quite abruptly in the art of investigative journalism which, in this case, amounts to quite a lot less car-chasing and snipering than the average political thriller, but still probably quite a lot more than the average foray into investigative reporting. Just the same, the restraint on the part of the filmmakers on this front is admirable, if not quite as compelling as The Constant Gardener (2005), or quite as challenging as Affleck’s excellent behind-the-camera picture, Gone Baby Gone (2007).
State of Play, in the end, and despite its many flaws, still manages to be an above average film, full of a few good twists and a refreshingly understated ending. Not everyone agrees, of course. Christopher Orr concludes that “a film that has spent an hour and forty-five minutes puffing itself into a battle for the Soul of American Democracy feebly hisses its way to a deflated conclusion.” This is unfair, since Orr is at once complaining that the film is both battling “for the Soul of American Democracy” and that it in fact, isn’t. It is a film that is more about human failure than one of dark conspiracies and political corruption. Orr can’t have it both ways, and it appears he doesn’t want it either way. That’s fine, but it’s not an honest critique.
David Denby is similarly miffed by the final act, writing that “[t]he dénouement feels like another fragment, as if the movie were unwilling to end.” Without giving anything away, it is important to note that the film also seems to want to convey this sort of deflated anti-triumph, because the villains, it turns out, are not so easily categorized as villains. The conspiracy is not quite the conspiracy we and our unlikely protagonists were led to believe it was, and unlike the grand overtures we are accustomed to in such genre-epics as The Pelican Brief or The Bourne Conspiracy, McAffrey’s breaking story, like the fate of the newspapers themselves, is ultimately tragic.
One thing that State of Play does do well, and that many reviewers seem to gloss over, is its ability to convey to a wider audience the relevance of print in a day of digital information, T.V. and radio punditry, and sound-bite news. As The Times notes, the film “sets out to make the point that a profit-driven culture drives out from politics and the media any notion of the public good or public service.” What we are left with following the demise of print news seems far more likely to become a public disservice.
Bloggers, of course, would have very little to write about, and televesion pundits would have many fewer opportunites to opine, if newspapers weren’t actively gathering the news. Of course newspapers, like the rest of the media, have been caught sleeping at the wheel once or twice, but they are nevertheless an essential piece of any functioning democracy, and the internet has not proved a viable alternative. Today, the state of print is in question, and the papers look to fall victim en masse to the whims of competition from competitors who simply do not provide the same service. New media, for all the good it has done, is still not quite news media. By thrusting this topic, however generically, into a smart and engaging thriller, State of Play helps create a broader empathy for the papers. Whether or not that will matter in the long run is hard to say, but it can’t hurt.