As filmic tributes to journalistic heroism go, you'd think that the new Russell Crowe/Ben Affleck thriller State of Play would fall far short of, say, All the President's Men. For one, the story is based on the tawdry and fictional personal behavior of a young congressman, not the gross and nonfictional abuse of power by the president of the United States. For another, journalists at the center of the new film commit such crimes against American journalistic mores as covering up for their political friends, paying sources for information, secretly videotaping hotel-room meetings, and cheerfully breaking the law to obtain information.
But such are the depths of U.S. newspaper despair this year, and the corresponding heights of journalistic self-pity, that what was originally a half-trashy BBC miniseries has become, by the time of its premier this Friday, "The last hurrah of Hollywood's hero journalist."
"'State of Play' pays homage to print journalism's role," the L.A. Times' Rachel Abramovitz posited recently. "'What happens when journalists aren't there to ask the difficult questions of politicians?'" Abramovitz asked in her lead. "That's just one concern Kevin Macdonald, the 41-year-old Scottish documentary filmmaker turned director, is raising with his new political thriller."
Director Macdonald and co-star Ben Affleck have been making great publicity hay recently by spoon-feeding journalistic self-regard right back to the embattled newspapers. It may sound "pompous to talk about newspapers' importance in society when you've only made a thriller," Macdonald tut-tutted to the Orlando Sentinel's Roger Moore. "But I'm not a journalist, so I can say it. This is worth talking about in a movie."
Cue applause, as the credits roll. Literally. "I looked around me as a room full of journalists sat, transfixed, during the closing credits," the New Jersey Star-Ledger's Stephen Witty wrote, in a piece headlined, "The 'State' of Newspapers." "No it wasn't because of outtakes, or a sudden don't-blink twist. It was the footage that those credits played out against, a sight that's in real danger of disappearing these days: The presses of a big-city newspaper, roaring to life. […] It was the movie's background—a big-city newsroom full of swaggering journalists, unemployable-in-any-other-profession eccentrics, toe-to-toe shouting matches and the comforting feeling that maybe, just maybe, you were doing something that needed to be done."
There is more than enough incestuousness in this feedback loop to remind non-newspaper employees anew why big-city journalism can be so off-putting. The newsroom reporters—who, in my decade of personal experience with American newspapers, almost never resemble the "unemployable-in-any-other-profession eccentrics" of celluloid lore, and in fact treat true eccentricity like a rare and communicable disease—just can't stop yammering about themselves.
"Ben Affleck says (print) media matters," went the headline at the Boston Globe online. (Apparently "He Likes Us! He Really Does" was considered too cliche.) The Globe's first two paragraphs on Affleck junketry are about, naturally, the Globe.
Even before "State of Play," his new movie celebrating the watchdog role of newspapers, Ben Affleck was partial to print. He grew up a reader of The Boston Globe and can't imagine his hometown paper going out of business.
"I was definitely shocked to hear about the Globe," the actor told us, referring to The New York Times Co.'s threat to shutter New England's newspaper of record unless it gets concessions from the paper's unions. "I fundamentally misunderstood what was going on. Boston.com has 5.6 million readers a month, and yet this hugely successful news gathering operation is going out of business." (For the record, Boston.com had 5.7 million unique visitors last month.)
But the most bizarre part of this tail-licking exercise is the notion that Russell Crowe's disheveled hero might just be the Last Newspaper Hero that Hollywood will ever feature.
"I couldn't help but think that I was witnessing the dying of a cinematic archetype: the Hero Journalist," Simon Dumenco wrote in Advertising Age. "It feels like a bookend to 'All the President's Men,' with Crowe's worn-down, worn-out reporter character, Cal McAffrey, as the earnest-but-embittered descendant of Robert Redford's and Dustin Hoffman's dashing young Woodward and Bernstein. Hollywood's going to stop making movies like this because, let's face it, newspapers—those that are left—are in no position to inspire yarns like this anymore."
Nonsense on stilts. For other ink-stained protagonists you need look no further than…a week from this Friday, when Robert Downey, Jr. portrays real-life L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez, whose relationship with a homeless cello player became the latest Oscar bid for Jamie Foxx. As long as there are movie rights to be sold, and dreams of seven-figure paydays instead of just six-figure paychecks to be dreamt, the distance between newspapering and screenwriting will be short indeed.
Movies will continue using and romanticizing newspaper reporters for the same reasons they always have: Journalists, like detectives and treasure-hunters and new teachers at troubled inner-city schools, have a workplace excuse to learn an unfolding story right along with the audience. They've become such stock characters that they've built up their own abstracted cinematic characteristics that directors can play off of or lean into (here's guessing, for example, that Russell Crowe's character eats junk food, drinks a bit too much, is known for being politically incorrect, and has a shambolic love life). And reporters tend to treat public policy issues with all the depth of, well, movie directors: See problem. Talk about problem. WHY ISN'T PROBLEM BEING FIXED!
Here's the real problem: The newspapers see themselves as a noble yet endangered species and they can't stop bugging us about it. Is State of Play the Last Newspaper Movie? Think of it instead as the first of many movie treatments about the long, tedious, and over-publicized death of a business that only occasionally resembles its noble cinematic self.