State of Play: A Portrait of the Journalist as a Fallible Man

For a Hollywood star vehicle, State of Play offers an unusually nuanced look at the life of the investigative reporter

By Alyssa Rosenberg

“People tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests,” Joan Didion wrote in her introduction to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in a passage that has become an unfortunate and clichéd summation of the character of reporters.  “And it always does….writers are always selling somebody out.”

What Didion neglects to mention is that the people journalists sell out, and hurt, can include themselves.  On film, and in print, Didion’s description is convenient.  It’s easy to slot reporters into one of two roles: the hero who has to resort to unscrupulous tactics for the sake of the People’s Right to Know; or the sycophant who  lives on the cocktail-party circuit and churns out flattery instead of copy.   Movies tend to prefer the former, pundits and media critics the latter.

Into that schematic comes State of Play, an engaging if unremarkable remake of a masterly 2003 BBC miniseries, which refuses to conform to those simplistic formulas. In a climate in which reporters are expected to be as detached as jurors, and against the backdrop of a flailing industry, State of Play dares to suggest that journalists, like the people they cover, have messy and complicated personal lives that affect and interact with their work.  What separates the reporters in this movie from their subjects is merely the reporters’ comparative lack of power.  And as such, the journalists are shown to make poor material for clear-cut heroism or villainy—which is what makes State of Play well worth watching.

The movie’s protagonist is Cal McAffrey, a distinguished if disheveled reporter at a Washington newspaper that has recently undergone a change of management. He finds himself drawn into an unpleasant situation when the mistress of his old college roommate, Stephen Collins—now a promising Congressman—dies on the subway tracks, putting Stephen’s career in jeopardy. Making things murkier, Stephen had been investigating a nasty and aggressive private security firm in the mold of Blackwater. And complicating matters still further, Cal once had a brief affair with Stephen’s wife, which has left Cal feeling guilty and eager to get right with Stephen by proving that he is being maliciously targeted.

State of Play stands in a marked contrast to the too-good-to-be-true portrayals of political journalists in two other recent movies.  The screen adaptation of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, cast Sir David Frost’s interview with disgraced former President Richard Nixon as a heroic act that restored honor to the Republic, rather than a canny compromise between one man looking for validation and another for profit.  And Nothing But the Truth, a retelling of the story of disgraced New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s pointless battle to conceal the identity of a source who had given her permission to reveal it, put a dewy Kate Beckinsale in prison garb to elicit our sympathy. Both movies are so eager to paint reporters as heroes that they edit history to do so.

There is no historical background to contend with in the State of Play. But neither is there much resemblance to such fictional journalistic romps as the classic His Girl Friday, in which Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell gleefully lock a murderer in a roll-top desk to preserve a scoop.  State of Play isn’t about the kind of journalism inhabited by kicky career girls like the comic-strip heroine Brenda Starr, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Mary Richards – nor does it resemble the bad-guys-versus-good-guys world of clandestine saints like Clark Kent, or talky crusaders like Spiderman’s J. Jonah Jameson. 

Rather, the journalists in State of Play are in the business because reporting is a compulsion for them—and because they aren’t suited for much else.  Russell Crowe, playing Cal, sports a risible haircut that makes him resemble the basset hound that he is.  The director conveys Cal’s dissolution with a shot in which three opened cans of beef stew drip onto the counter, as Cal pokes madly at a gooey vortex of instant mashed potatoes.  At work, his desk is surrounded by a thicket of clippings set up to look like a stereotypical serial killer’s trophy wall ; at home, he stockpiles vast stacks of newspapers, and serves drinks in commemorative Steelers glasses. 

The only aspect of his life that appears functional or grown-up is his journalism, and the events of State of Play challenge even that assumption.  When the Collins story breaks, and his editor asks him whether he has a conflict of interest, he denies it with an obvious lie.  When Stephen asks him “Am I talking to my friend now, or am I talking to a reporter?” Cal equivocates, saying “I’ve got to be both.”  And when Anne Collins, Stephen’s wife, visits Cal in an attempt to rekindle their affair, Cal turns her down but asks her a question prompted by his reporting; he seems too bloated and lethargic to summon the energy to let himself be seduced, though he can still manage an interview.  She seems simultaneously relieved and embittered by his reaction. “It’s okay,” Anne tells Cal after telling him what he needs.  “Now I’m just a source, so the pressure’s off.”

Cal can only control the story, and his obsessive pursuit of his version of events puts his job at risk when he urges Della Frye, the sharp young blogger he’s adopted as a protégé, not to publish a rumor that Stephen had a threesome with Sonia.  Another paper confirms the story and claims the scoop, cementing Cal’s editor’s view that Cal is being inappropriately protective of Collins.  Cal’s editor is right.  But Cal is right, too—his encyclopedic knowledge of the case, his patience in developing it, and his tenacious pursuit of his theory of the murder prove critical to discovering who killed Collins’s mistress. 

Cal’s professional triumph, however, carries with it no personal transformation. Even though his tireless efforts produce definitive answers and a measure of justice for those involved, Cal’s life—and the wreck his reporting has made of it—remains unchanged.

The problem with journalism—and with journalism movies—is that getting the story isn’t the same thing as getting the girl, or getting the bad guy.  You file a story, and if you’re very, very lucky, and have done a very, very good job with your reporting, the cavalry follows your pointed finger into town.  Someone better-looking than you unties the pretty girl from the train tracks, and a prosecutor in a better suit than you can afford puts the criminal away. 

Though State of Play’s ending is almost ruined by an imprudently placed monologue on the value of old-fashioned reporting, the movie wisely concludes with Cal and Della walking out of a darkening office, heading nowhere in particular.  Their story is over, and there’s nothing left for them to do but go home.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/04/state-of-play-a-portrait-of-the-journalist-as-a-fallible-man/307415/