Thursday, June 11, 2009

State of Play: Will the Internet kill the newspaper movie?

I went to Stafford cinema last night to watch Russell Crowe’s journalist caper movie State of Play. It is always constructive to understand why a film gets its name and in this case it is not entirely obvious from the political thriller plot. As far as I can see, the State of Play is that of the newspaper industry itself hovering on the brink of total collapse as is its 20th century revenue model. The film is no less than an elegy for newspaper values and the movies written about them.

State of Play's Scottish filmmaker Kevin McDonald is a former journalist. He brings an attention to detail to the piece which transports a 2003 BBC miniseries across the pond and condenses six hours to two. In many ways a standard Hollywood thriller that tries too hard to please, McDonald’s movie still says something important about the parlous state of industrial journalism in the world. Set in a fictional large newsroom in Washington DC, the film has a lot to say about the challenges newsprint is facing to survive; both from the disappearing advertising imperative and the impact of the new practices of digital media.

The central character is Crowe’s Cal McAffrey, a scruffy “old-style” journalist who uses his wide-ranging connections to get to the salient facts of any case. McAffrey is sartorial challenged but is adept at working his sources and knowing what news angles to use in any given situation. His employers, the fictional Washington Globe, serves as a cipher for the Washington Post and the film’s attempt to uncover dirty political tricks is redolent of the Woodward/Bernstein story in All the Presidents’ Men. But while owners such as Katherine Graham (now dead) and Warren Buffett have respected the venerable nature of the Post, the fictional paper has been taken over by the money men who want to see quick returns on their investment. The new owners are more interested in profits than Pulitzers.

The paper’s editor is played in Graham-style by Helen Mirren. She has to juggle the demands of her new corporate bosses while still encouraging her reporters to get the story. Mirren is keen to support the paper’s online presence. In the film this is portrayed by Rachel McAdam’s character Della Frye – a silly name but a plausible nod to journalistic films of yesteryear such as The Front Page or His Girl Friday. But while Rosalind Russell happily called herself a reporter in the Billy Wilder classic, Frye calls herself a blogger. Defending her new recruit, the editor tells McAffrey why Frye is employed: "she's hungry, she's cheap, and she churns out copy every hour."

While the blogger is initially stereotyped as someone who does not do any fact checking, it quickly turns out that Ms Della Frye is a darn fine reporter who gets under McAffrey’s crusty skin. The old journo lays down the law. "This is a real story, not gossip” he warns her. However this idea that some stories are too deep for blogs is horseshit. As was this line from Frye when Crowe’s character asks her if she is going to blog about it. Her response: "When people read this story, they should have newsprint on their hands." Ah but why, Frye? Such sentimentality is touching except for the fact most people want to read the news for free and not have to wait around for the morning delivery.

But what happens when there is no more morning delivery? Roger Ebert wonders if this will be last newspaper movie with its “eerie valedictory feeling”. Perhaps optimistically Ebert answers his own question in the negative. It will survive, he says, because no matter what happens to newspapers, the newspaper movie is a durable genre. According to Ebert, shouting "stop the presses!" is ever so much more exciting than shouting "stop the upload!"

Yet it is likely the presses will stop regardless of what Hollywood wants. In some ways McDonald realises this with his elegiac closing credits showing the production process of a newspaper. Having filed the story, the credits take the viewers through set plates, whirring presses, collated broadsheets and stacks of newsprint ready for the public’s morning read. As A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times, “the images are stirring and familiar, though in a few years’ time they may look as quaint as engravings of stagecoaches and steam engines.”

The film left unanswered the question of whether either McAffrey or Frye would survive the disappearance of print. To me, it seemed that the young blogger could easily pick up McAffrey’s skills but he would have difficulty picking up hers. No longer could they say of her as the LA Times could say about the archetypal blogger Matt Drudge: “He’s a menace to honest, responsible journalism.” But what Drudge did was challenge the rules of journalism. He bypassed the hierarchies of editor and publisher. Given that these hierarchies are about to disappear, the world will belong to those that master whatever is left behind. That is the true state of play.

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