Despite flaws, ‘State of Play’ (2009) is among the best movies ever made about journalism

Note: This film review is lightly revised and expanded from a review first printed ten years ago in The MidCity Advocate, former name of The City Sentinel, a newspaper based in Oklahoma City. 

State of Play” is a story about modern newspaper journalism, circa 2009. Thankfully the movie was made late in the heyday of that era when most American consumers of news still had daily papers to hold, read, kick around, cuss and discuss. 

In the lead character of an scruffy aging idealistic reporter at the Washington Globe (read: Post), Russell Crowe is superb as Cal McAffrey, a messy Jameson-drinking reporter of the old (and liberal) school who endears himself quickly to the audience. It is another masterful performance for the Australian. Crowe is well supported by a fine cast of first-class professionals.

Helen Mirren is a feminine version of polished but not-too-pure editors of the past and present, facing nightmarish competitive pressures from television, the web and corporate owners removed from classical journalistic ethics and concerns.
Rachel McAdams is Della, the Globe’s web-oriented blogger who steadily morphs into a real journalist. Ben Affleck is the lead character’s friend, Congressman Stephen Collins, living under scrutiny in a troubled marriage and in an apparently passionate but more-than-meets-the-eye affair with a young aide.

Perhaps the most sympathetic person in the story is Robin Wright Penn as Anne Collins, estranged wife of the pol, and object of Crowe’s historic affection.
A fine small portrayal comes from Harry J. Lennix, who plays a local cop fending off political pressure while trying to get to vital information the journalists withhold from government officials.

The story succeeds because it rises above the predictable tendency to make journalists demigods, showing instead they are torn by the same conflicts and cares as anyone else. Some handle pressure better than others, and for all his character’s flaws, by story’s end Crowe delivers a believable portrait of the modern newspaper reporter as watchdog and ethical gatekeeper.

In one important respect, “State of Play” disappoints. With many contemporary crises to choose from, screenwriters make a fictitious international security firm the film’s villain. The Blackwater-stereotype corporate villains are too easy, and already seemd dated when the film was released. They are not nearly as persuasive in the story line as deserved by the journalism-in-crisis characterizations from Crowe, Mirren, McAdams and others in the cast.

Save for this important flaw, undoubtedly a reflection of the underlying political bias of those who adapted what was first a BBC series, “State of Play” is one of the best films released a decade ago, and this reviewer’s personal all-time favorite flick (well, “Citizen Kane” might come first) focused on the reporter’s craft. Perhaps one day I’ll find the time to go through the 50 or so best such films, and rank the rest of the best. 
A tip of the hat to director Kevin MacDonald for managing to keep the story on track and just under two hours.

McAdams’ character seeks seriousness of purpose in the muddled modernity of journalism. She shares a powerful, poignant moment with Crowe’s seasoned character, one which is staged in an effective and understated manner. 
After the veteran writer has completed a write-through of their joint news report, with her watching, he pushes back from the computer terminal — to insist that she, not he, press the “send” button. She does so, and the news story goes to the printers, destined for page one, above-the-fold.

Some other reviewers remarked quite correctly on the power of the film’s closing credits. Find the film, and watch that patiently, to see news move from electronics onto the printed page, and into the manufacturing process. The papers roll in the dark of night on massive presses, onto binding machines and into the trucks that carry them to distribution points.

In the end, the papers reached news stands, libraries and ports of call, including the homes of people living in a free society, where “the press” is a business explicitly protected in the Bill of Rights.
Biographical note: An educator and journalist, McGuigan is the founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service, and publisher of The City Sentinel.