The Last Hurrah of Hollywood's Hero Journalist?

Journalism as a Brand, and Journalists as a Special Breed, Get an Epitaph in Russell Crowe's Latest Film

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I have just seen what may end up being a cinematic landmark. It's called "State of Play," and it's coming to a theater near you (if you happen to live in the U.S.) Friday, April 17. Sure, in a lot of ways it's just what you'd expect from Hollywood these days -- it's a fast-paced thriller, a murder mystery with big-bucks casting (Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and supporting players including Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels and Jason Bateman). But what makes it feel milestone-y is that it presents its protagonist, a newspaper reporter (Crowe), as gritty, complicated and entirely essential to the Republic. And in that regard, it feels like possibly the last of its breed.

A DYING CINEMATIC BREED: Robert Redford and Russell Crowe as Hero Journalists.
A DYING CINEMATIC BREED: Robert Redford and Russell Crowe as Hero Journalists.
Watching "State of Play," I couldn't help but think that I was witnessing the dying of a cinematic archetype: the Hero Journalist. It feels like a bookend to "All the President's Men," with Crowe's worn-down, worn-out reporter character, Cal McAffrey, as the earnest-but-embittered descendant of Robert Redford's and Dustin Hoffman's dashing young Woodward and Bernstein. Hollywood's going to stop making movies like this because, let's face it, newspapers -- those that are left -- are in no position to inspire yarns like this anymore.

Just so you know, there are no spoilers in this column. I'm not trying to review it here (though, for the record, I found it hugely entertaining). Besides, those who have seen the original "State of Play" -- an acclaimed six-hour BBC miniseries from 2003 that's since been released on DVD -- know a lot of the plot twists already. (I saw it at a press screening with an old colleague, a film critic and fan of the BBC original, who was surprised to quite like this compressed adaptation.) The major difference here is that the action is transplanted from London to Washington, and the journalist who is entangled with a troubled politician (Affleck, who plays a young congressman instead of an MP) is working at the fictional Washington Globe. Which is, of course, a failing newspaper with penny-pinching owners.

And just to further update the plot, Crowe's character teams up with -- get this -- a blogger! (Gawker et al. are going to have fun with this.) The cranky, crusty newspaperman teaches the young, ambitious blogger (Rachel McAdams) the investigative-reporting ropes. Intrigue and assorted thrilling chases ensue, and in the end Truth and Justice prevail.

Now, you don't have to be a newspaper person to realize this zesty character dynamic -- a reporter-blogger duo -- is a fairytale. It's not so much that the new and old generations of media people can't work together; sometimes, in real life, they sort of do. It's just that the ranks of investigative reporters are dwindling so rapidly, and everybody knows that the hottest bloggers -- whether they work for old-school newspapers or for new-ish blog publishers/networks -- have little interest in reporting, period, let alone being apprentice reporters.

McAdams' character is obviously meant to be a Wonkette-y sort of gossipy snark mistress. Of course, the world has changed again even since this movie was in preproduction. Last spring, right around the time "State of Play" was shooting around Capitol Hill, Nick Denton, the owner of Wonkette's then-parent company, Gawker Media, announced that he was putting Wonkette up for sale (even in an election year, the ad revenues from political-gossip bloggery were underwhelming). And by the time "State of Play" was in postproduction in the fall, Denton was announcing Gawker Media layoffs. His downsized (or right-sized?) empire now seems to be holding its own, even as the media industry continues to crumble, but no matter: There is no way Denton or any other blog manager or mogul would ever let one of their charges repeatedly take their fingers off their laptops long enough to pick up the phone, or even get out into the world, to do in-depth interviews with sources, let alone chase after bad guys. Not in this economy. Keep posting, keep getting page views, or you're out on your ass.

In the end, this movie feels like a memento mori for newspapers -- and not just because its closing credits scroll over loving shots of newspaper presses that we all know will sooner than later forever grind to a halt. It's watching Crowe's character do what he does so well -- extract important information, for the public good, from actual sources (cops he's known for decades, the medical examiner who owes him a favor, etc.) -- that really broke my heart. Who's going to do that anymore?

It's an interesting Hollywood-historical side note that Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck are actually replacements -- for Brad Pitt and Ed Norton, the "Fight Club" duo, who were originally attached to this film. Pitt dropped out when the writers strike put the kibosh on his demands for a rewrite (and then Norton dropped out because of scheduling conflicts). Mr. Angelina Jolie was serious enough about researching his role that he paid a four-hour visit to the newsroom of The Washington Post back in early 2007. At the time, the paper wryly reported on the actor's visit:

"The Post's scribes tried -- but not too hard -- to act nonchalant while gazing dreamily in the actor's direction. 'It was like angels singing,' one female employee was overheard saying after apparently making brief eye contact."

The paper also quoted Metropolitan Editor R.B. Brenner, a consultant to the film, as saying of his extended chat with Pitt, "It was really a conversation about craft."

Can you imagine? Craft?

Do I hear angels sobbing?

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