State of Play: Old media vs the world

In Kevin Macdonald’s thriller, investigative journalism saves The Truth from corrupt politics and the blogosphere.

Saga Lofgren

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The conspiracy thriller State of Play, the latest film by The Last King of Scotland director, Kevin Macdonald, touches on some pertinent issues concerning the future of the media. Adapted from a 2003 BBC mini-series, the film throws up questions about who directs the news, the relationship between politicians and the media, the death (or not) of investigative journalism, and whether newspapers are losing the battle for readers to the ‘blogosphere’.

The film centres around the headquarters of the Washington Globe where the hard-bitten journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) sees it as his mission to seek out the truth at whatever price necessary. After years of total devotion to his profession, McAffrey has turned into a podgy middle-aged single man, seemingly with little control over his hygiene or drinking. Though Crowe is convincing in the role, McAffrey comes across more like a caricature of a detective novel character than as a realistic reporter.

McAffrey’s old college roommate, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), is a rising star in the world of politics who is suddenly at the centre of a major scandal. A congressman, Collins serves as the chairman of a committee overseeing military defence spending. During the course of the congressional hearings against the PointCorp corporation, which contracts with the government for security duties and mercenaries in Iraq, Collins’s young, female researcher, Sonya, suddenly dies on her way to work one day.

During a live broadcast, Collins fails to hold back the tears as he announces the death of his personal assistant. This sends the press into a frenzy and sparks speculative headlines of a secret love affair between Collins and Sonya. Rumours spread that her death in the Washington subway might have been a suicide, not an accident.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a homeless drug addict steals a portfolio containing pictures of Sonya and a well-dressed man. Throughout the film, these incidents – and a bunch of other complications – are carefully sewn together into a detective-like patchwork.

Over at the Washington Globe, editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) is stirring up conflict as she puts together a news team to cover the unfolding story of the death of Collins’s mistress – putting more and more pressure on McAffrey to use his personal connection with Collins to generate some exclusives for the paper. The conflict within the team is not just personal, but reflects a very contemporary real-world struggle between old media – represented here by McAffrey – and new media – as embodied in the young blogger Della Frye, who writes for the paper’s online edition. On the web, fact checking is rather slack and sensationalism is what generates the ‘hits’. McAffrey openly shows his contempt for this state of affairs.

By her own high standards, Mirren’s acting is a little damp, but her character stands out in this male-dominated media world. Overall, the roles of the women in the film are of three kinds: Lynne is the strong career woman (in the British version, the editor was a man); Frye is the inexperienced, wide-eyed newbie; and then there are the lovers – the dead researcher and the cheated woman, Collins’s wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn), who herself is hiding a past affair.

Robin Wright Penn portrays the cheated wife well, a role she more or less copies from her part in Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering, where she played a melancholic Scandinavian.

By comparison to Crowe’s manly and serious reporter, Frye, the curious blogger, starts out as naive and gullible. She is inexperienced in the methods and challenges of investigative reporting. Instead of chasing leads around the clock, Frye goes to bed at night. When McAffrey gets hold of the photos of Sonya and the man who turns out to be a PR executive working for a subsidiary of PointCorp, Frye is shocked that he keeps them rather than handing them over to the police at one. As the camera zooms in on her large, doey eyes, Frye asks McAffrey if they aren’t breaking the law. McAffrey responds with a hoarse chuckle and lets her know that she doesn’t know what journalism is about.

Overall, State of Play won’t leave a significant mark. The casting looks great on the film posters, yet the characters don’t quite emerge from under the big-name actors. The Hollywood version of the BBC series takes the entertainment angle too far, which weakens the film as a whole. There is also what looks like a testosterone-fuelled race between Affleck in his role as a compromised and morally dubious politician and Crowe’s rough newsman. It feels as if they are trying to outshine each other, and both characters comes off as slightly ‘overplayed’.

State of Play is a classic edge-of-the-seat action thriller and though this Americanised version is pretty predictable, it does have some depth as regards the questions it raises around media ownership and news sourcing.

When television came along, there was a great deal of speculation about it heralding the death of cinema. As we know, that hasn’t happened. Now, the web is said to challenge print journalism and print sales have taken additional hits from the recession lately. In addition to political corruption, this debate about the media is the backdrop to State of Play. The film illustrates strongly the different agendas, interests, personal connections and social shifts in the media world which shape what information gets through to the public and how.

There is a telling scene where Lynne, with a sigh, admits that a sensational story sells more newspapers than one that is more mundane, but honest and true to reality. This summarises the basic message of the film neatly: if society loses investigative journalism, an already corrupt power system can freely direct the content and flow of information. And if that happens, we will all get played.

Saga Lofgren is an intern at spiked.

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