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.
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.