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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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How much real journalism is in the journalistic thriller 'State of Play'?

When I saw "State of Play" last night at an industry screening at the Academy, I was surrounded by agents, managers and studio types who all came armed with their primary information-gathering device -- their BlackBerrys and iPhones. So it was a treat to see a film that took me back in time, to the days when the information gathering was accomplished by scruffy reporters with notepads and sharp questions. The fast-paced thriller stars Russell Crowe as an investigative Washington reporter whose friendship with a do-gooder Congressman (Ben Affleck) is tested by a series of brutal murders that seem to point to collusion in high places.

Playposter Since most of the movie revolves around news gathering techniques and moral/ethical choices involving reporters, I got a lot of questions afterward about how realistic the story was. Having just seen Crowe involved in all sorts of suspenseful action -- hustling cops, chasing down sources and barely escaping being killed in an abandoned garage -- I confessed afterward to one agent: "He definitely has a lot more exciting life than I do." 

I'll let the critics review the film. (So far, according to Rotten Tomatoes, the reviews are excellent.) But when it comes to journalistic accuracy, "State of Play" follows the usual Hollywood standard. Its set design is wonderful, with great attention to detail -- Crowe's desk has the disheveled look of a real reporter's lair, with notes and clippings strewn everywhere. The banter between reporters is also believable (if you collected all our best quips and left our lamest jokes on the cutting room floor). But when it comes to journalistic procedure, the movie is pretty laughable.

The problem is pretty obvious -- the film's screenwriters, all clearly gifted at dialogue and storytelling, have taken a story that is really a cop movie and grafted it into the world of journalism. Crowe actually interrogates one suspect -- whoops, I mean source -- in a motel room, with a backup crew of cops -- whoops, I mean reporters -- stashed in an adjoining motel room, secretly videotaping the encounter, which he then shows to another source/suspect in the story. This is, ahem, wrong on a thousand different ethical levels, not to mention, in an era of vastly diminished newspaper resources, who could afford to pay for all the video gear, much less two motel rooms?

Crowe has a basic conflict of interest that would disqualify any reporter from covering this story; he's an old friend (and former college roommate) of the powerful congressman who's at the heart of a murder mystery. Even worse, from a believability angle, Crowe's top editor (nicely played as a tough-talking Fleet Street expatriate by Helen Mirren) knows all about their friendship, which in real journalistic life, would have disqualified Crowe from covering the story from the jump-off, especially since he has an even more complicated entanglement with the congressman's wife.

There's a host of other farfetched moments, including a scene where Mirren refuses to print an explosive story, saying that the paper's new owners are insisting that Crowe get at least one key source on the record. A reputable newspaper would indeed demand that at least one source be on the record before printing a big story, but that demand would come from the editors, not from the owners of the paper, who  usually find out about a big story at the same time the readers do -- after it's printed.

But for me, the biggest whopper of all happens after Crowe has pushed his deadline to the limit. He finally sits down and cranks out a complicated expose that could ruin a number of powerful Washington insiders in even less time than it took me to write this blog item. (Fair enough -- that's dramatic compression, since who wants to see the dreary details of all that typing.) But when Crowe is finished, he simply hits the SEND button, gets up and walks out of the newsroom, as if his job were done.

It's a heroic walk off into the sunset, but in terms of veracity, it leaves out all the real work that goes into a story after the first draft is finished. In other words, there's no editing, no rewrites, no fact checking, no trims for space, no perusals by the paper's lawyers, no nothing. It's a wonderful movie moment, but like all too many movie moments, whether they involve lawyers, doctors, cops or grouchy newspaper reporters, it leaves out an awful lot of the rich detail that goes into accomplishing a task.

Is it good drama? You bet. But is it good reporting? Not so much. 

RELATED:

Takes notes like a real reporter: Russell Crowe in 'State of Play'

 
Comments () | Archives (9)

The comments to this entry are closed.

god, i'm a journo too, but it's a movie there, fella. take a navelgazing chill pill.

I don't even see this so-called real journalism from the so-called real journalists. Some "real journalists" need to learn to stick the the facts, rather than editorializing for the agenda du jour.

Is there something wrong with the article's opening line?

"When I saw "State of Play" last night at an industry screening at the Academy last night"

Is this good writing? I've seen better.

oh my...it took a FILM for someone to stand up and state a case on behalf of integrity in journalism. jesus...as if journalists exist and operate in some ivory tower of institutional procedure. think 'Indecision 2000', Dan Rather Memo's, and every other goofy 'see it here first' rush to break anything to get ratings.

i guess if you have to make a last stand for journalism, it's only appropriate to do it by attacking a movie about a journalist. a movie...a MOVIE!!!

Nice pice, Patrick. I was a gumshoer for 21 years and, you're correct, as reporters we can't be cops or private detectives, which is usually how the movies make it look. That way the stars can be journalistic heroes easy; no scruffy work, no professional limits, no sticking around for editor's questions. And yes, with unlimited budgets. Begad! I've seen plenty of real news conferences in D.C. (and agressive NYC) with large gaggles of reporters and cameras, and of course they are never like the ones in the movies -- in movies a group of silly TV reporters run up the court steps, mics outstreached, babbling questions mindlessly.

Anyway, that showbiz. Nice essay. I look forward to the movie.

Nice piece, Patrick. I was a gumshoer for 21 years and, you're correct, as reporters we can't be cops or private detectives, which is usually how the movies make it look. That way the stars can be journalistic heroes easy; no scruffy work, no professional limits, no sticking around for editor's questions. And yes, with unlimited budgets. Begad! I've seen plenty of real news conferences in D.C. (and agressive NYC) with large gaggles of reporters and cameras, and of course they are never like the ones in the movies -- in movies a group of silly TV reporters run up the court steps, mics outstreached, babbling questions mindlessly.

Anyway, that's showbiz. Nice essay. I look forward to the movie.

Real journalists died a long time ago. Now there are just left wing hacks with agendas, and left wing dimwits as editors.

The April 25-26 book fair in LA will introduce new book by Vahid Razavi, Iranian American entrepreneur who gained priceless experiences by traveling the world and trying to find similarities with people. He is explaining the current situation in places like IRAN, USA, Serbia etc.
Also, he said that for some people travel is a way of life and it does not necessarily include 5 star hotels and vacations on the far away beaches. There are so many other ways to experience different cultures and enrich ones life. There is a book that talks allot about these kind of things, it is a travel journal of an Iranian American entrepreneur traveling in Balkans, called The Age of Nepotism. Our booth number in UCLA is 683 Zone F, if you are in the neighborhood come on over and pay us a visit. You also can visit the site
www.theageofnepotism.com
http://theageofnepotism.com/2009/04/press-release-los-angeles-times-festival-of-books/

It's pretty funny what filmmakers will do to make an entertaining film. I couldn't help laughing at your description of Crowe's dramatic exit. It's true what the commenters are saying--it's just a movie. On the other hand viewers expect accuracy from films and could end up basing a lot of false assumptions on journalism because of this movie.

All the President's Men did a really good job of showing the work that goes into investigative reporting, as well as some of the movie worthy moments of tensions and possible danger inherent in investigative reporting. For today's movie audiences, All the President's Men would probably be a little slow and not terribly scintillating (no car chases or interrogation for one)...which means it wouldn't make the money State of Play undoubtedly will.


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