Sunday, April 19, 2009

the sleeping alone film review: State of Play

Summary: I liked it better when it was called The Pelican Brief, had a relevant storyline, and wasn't a caricature of itself.

If you're interested in further proof of how relevant print publications were in, say, 1996, you can watch State of Play, a hopelessly outdated rocking-chair thriller rollicking new action film about a hard-bitten newspaper journalist pounding the pavement for the big breaking story that will save his paper from tumbling into obscurity--that is, if he can get the big sources on the record in time for the article to make it in the morning print time. It appears, god help us, that nobody involved in the making of this film has any sense of how new media has changed its key plot point--how news breaks in a new media age.

Two huge--huge--issues dog this movie, which I suppose hopes to be viewed as a throwback to the good old days of journalism but ends up looking more like a PBS documentary from 1972 showing young viewers how newspapers are made. First, State of Play hinges on the premise that old-time print reporters and their editors are playing by new rules mandated by corporate conglomerates whose primary interest is revenue--fair enough, right? Except that as the key characters struggle to keep newspapers relevant, they showcase the filmmakers' enormous blind spot for what led to the print media scramble in the first place. We've seen this story before, many times over--only this time, little effort is made to update the details. Perhaps the film's producers hope to sell it on the headliners.

In this case, Russell Crowe is Cal McAffrey, the whiskey-in-a-dixie-cup print reporter, Helen Mirren is his starchy but matronly editor, and the paper is the "Washington Globe," recently purchased by MediaCorp and undergoing a major makeover in an effort to boost sales. Part of the makeover is the new "Internet" division of the Globe (they actually have a sandwichboard sign marking off their section of the newsroom--I'm serious!), represented by Rachel McAdams as Della Frye, the hungry young blogger in search of a big story to cut her teeth on. When McAffrey's friend, U.S. Rep. Stephen Collins (played by Ben Affleck), finds himself embroiled in a sex-turned-political scandal, McAffrey and Frye form an uneasily alliance in an effort to peel back the layers of scandal and, perhaps, rescue McAffrey's friend from an impending political undoing.

Problem number one: The newsroom is laughably isolated from new media--and even old media--news sources. Helen Mirren's office appears to feature the newspaper's only television, a plasma widescreen, which is invariably turned off. Della, the token blogger, is never shown online, even to post her stories; and the reporters use old-timey, spiral-cord phones to contact sources on their cordless home phones. Even non-media types seem agog at the breakneck pace of news coverage these days--when Collins's mistress is killed, he is astounded to see the story covered on six (count 'em, six) TV channels at the same time.

Problem number two: The reporters break the story in a pathetically analog way, with McAffrey and Frye pounding the ol' pavement in search of reliable sources. A running sub-plotline of the film is that Frye keeps getting caught without a pen during crucial information-gathering moments, while McAffrey always has writing utensils at the ready. A key source is put in a bugged hotel room and his confessions are recorded using bulky equipment that apparenty requires two operators, a pair of television monitors, and a stacked set of electronics. I don't think the recorders themselves are even digital.

This would be forgivable in a movie that didn't try so hard to position itself in the middle of current events. The corporate buyout of the newspaper and the accompanying pressure to increase revenue by getting in front of breaking stories sets the date as 2009, even though the narrative and set design try for 1996. "The real story," shrieks Helen Mirren, "is the sinking of this bloody newspaper!"

And that brings me to a second fundamental problem: The plot is presented as a timely consideration of political corruption by private interests, but it plays out as a hackneyed remake of news items that were old to us a year or more ago. Corporate conglomerates are corrupt monopolies that will stop at nothing to secure the bottom line! A private company run by ex-military types is securing key security contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq! Company officials may be bribing and corrupting politicians! A sex scandal threatens to bring down the earnest young politician who hopes to expose the company! And everywhere, people who know too much are dying mysteriously! It's enough to make you...cough politely and shift your feet because they, too, are falling asleep.

Near the end of the film, Helen Mirren gives the journalistic odd couple a hard deadline for breaking the news story: She tells them they have to finish it up within eight hours, when the paper goes to press. As that deadline nears and the pair haven't yet gotten enough information to expose the roots of the scandal, they push the deadline...and push it...and push it, while the entire newspaper staff lingers in the newsroom, waiting for the signal that the article's ready to print.

I'm calling bullshit on this plot point. A paper that wants to break the story first runs what it can online, following up with online updates and a print version that continues to develop the story. It doesn't put a wholesale stop on a story that runs as wide and deep as the central scandal of State of Play does--some blogger or new media newshound will get to it first, neutering every detail in an instant.

When the reporters finally gather enough information to break the story, McAffrey offers it up for a blogpost. Frye smiles and says, maturely, "For a story this big, people should get newsprint on their hands as they read it."

"Haha!" chuckled the elderly couple sitting behind me. Their exclamations of surprise and pleasure at various pithy one-liners and plot twists peppered the movie. When photos of the dead congressional aide showed up in the personal effects of a murdered drug dealer, for example, they gasped in unison.

"This is such a good movie!" the woman said, and her husband agreed in a whisper. I bet they especially loved the closing credits, which ran over a documentary style presentation of the newspaper printing process. In this depiction, the headlines are transferred to transparencies, lined up on printing presses, and printed on thousands of front pages that are then bound in cellophane and loaded on to idling trucks for early morning delivery. In the amount of time it must have taken for the breaking story to print, alert readers would already have read the entire story online and many of those would have already extended the story with blogposts, comments, or stories of their own making new connections between details.

I'm not disputing, mind you, the effort and care that goes into the printing of a newspaper; I'm only disputing the assumption that people would find the process interesting enough to stick around through the credits. I only stayed because I was already mentally composing my blogpost about the movie when the final insult of the closing scene started to run. I sat there until the bitter end, god help me. I did it for you, the reading public of sleeping alone and starting out early.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

God damn, this is an excellent movie review.


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