From His Girl Friday to All the President’s Men, some of Hollywood’s best movies (and my own favourites, too) have been set in the ink-stained world of newspapers, a setting with its own grubby glamour, its own mystique, and an inherent narrative arc of tension and release built into the daily rhythm of deadlines and scoops. As a last-act kicker, nothing beats the breathless injunction to “Hold the front page!”
Well, Russell Crowe gets to hold the presses in the latest newspaper movie, but this time the coup seems like a last hurrah. With newspapers currently going out of business in the States, and up against the wall over here, director Kevin Macdonald’s gripping political thriller State of Play has the feel of an elegy for a dying world.
State of Play is, of course, based on the brilliant six-part BBC TV series that aired in 2003, with the action shifted from London to Washington. The plot remains roughly the same.
Crowe (a late-in-the-day replacement for Brad Pitt) plays Cal McAffrey, a veteran investigative reporter for the (fictitious) Washington Globe. Cal is an old school journalist. You can tell this right away. He’s a scruffy loner, his office desk is cluttered with tottering piles of paper, and his battered car is a junk-strewn midden on wheels. In Hollywood shorthand, this means he is a man of integrity and resourcefulness.
It also means that he is not best pleased when his gruff editor (Helen Mirren) tells him to hook up with eager beaver Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), an inexperienced young reporter for the Globe’s “online side” and someone who represents the voracious new world of the blogosphere.
“She’s hungry, she’s cheap, and she churns out copy every hour,” states Mirren’s Cameron Lynne.
Cal is investigating a puzzling double shooting on the city streets, while Della has turned up some juicy scandal behind the apparent suicide of a congressional aide. The two stories turn out to be linked. They also turn out to involve Cal’s old college friend Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), a fast-rising US congressman who is chairing a controversial defence committee that is looking into the activities of a sinister Halliburton-esque corporation.
As the investigation develops, Cal must juggle the demands of the story with his friendship with Collins, while handling the repercussions of his romantic history with Collins’s wife (Robin Wright Penn) and evading the attentions of a deadly assassin.
That’s a good amount of plot to shoehorn into a movie that runs a little over two hours, around a third of the length of the TV series. Inevitably, some of the intricacies and nuances that made the original so compelling have been lost. Some of the movie’s casting choices also disappoint, with Mirren’s editor a pale shadow of the raffish, charming, shrewd character played first time around by Bill Nighy in one of the performances that secured his status as a British national treasure.
Overall, though, Macdonald makes a good fist of things. State of Play doesn’t join the pantheon of great newspaper movies, but it is nevertheless an enthralling and intelligent thriller.
It is also very contemporary. What could be more up to the minute than the tussle between a newspaper reporter digging deeply into a story before going into print and the blogger rushing online with the latest un-sourced gossip.
As a journalist with a foot in both camps – print media and the blogosphere – you’d think my loyalties would be divided. While watching State of Play, however, I knew exactly who to root for. And, despite its corniness, I did choke up a little when one character (I won’t say whom) delivers the following valedictory line. A story this big, “people should probably have newsprint on their hands when they read it”.
On general release from 24th April
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A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.