With seemingly half the newspapers in America in Chapter 11, the newsroom drama State of Play arrived earlier this month on DVD as a fond, nostalgic memento of a once-glamorous profession. If, by glamorous, one envisions not Robert Redford but a fat, schlubby, long-haired Russell Crowe searching for scoops in Washington, DC from behind the wheel of a broken-down Saab. (What is it about journalists and old Scandinavian cars?)
As our J. Hoberman wrote in his April review, State of Play is no great film, but it stands on the shoulders of many prior stop-the-presses! movies. Think of All the President's Men, The Front Page, or Scandal Sheet. And more significantly: the 2003 BBC mini-series State of Play (also available on DVD), which has been substantially compressed here into 128 minutes.
But the affecting thing about this condensed version is that Crowe, many lagers past his Gladiator fighting weight, sympathetically embodies an industry in parallel decline.Never mind his hatred of tabloids and paparazzi in real life. On screen, Crowe seems more comfortable with the conversational give-and-take with sources, pumping cops and congressmen (including Ben Affleck) for information, than he in ducking bullets in a parking garage. (Director Kevin Macdonald, best known for The Last King of Scotland, often makes like Tony Scott when it comes to covering script deficiencies with camera razzle-dazzle and sudden shootouts.
With a patient, disapproving editor (Helen Mirren) looking over one shoulder, and an apprentice blogger (Rachel McAdams) over the other, Crowe is surrounded by temptation that might distract him from unraveling a conspiracy story involving a very Halliburton-like company and a sudden rash of murders. (Also, his ex, played by Robin Wright Penn, is married to Affleck's incriminated congressman.) Yet despite the presence of three such attractive women, there's barely a whiff of sex to the picture. Crowe's reporter is, as they say, married to his job. He's a slovenly bachelor for whom there's no great distinction between office cubicle and apartment. (Oh, the latter has a kitchen, never used.)
The abridged conspiracy yarn is ultimately less interesting than the twilight setting and elegiac mood of the dead-tree newspaper biz. Crowe's paper has been sold to some cost-cutting investment bank. Bloggers are on the rise. And Crowe is emphatically a creature of the linotype past.
State of Play (Universal Home Video, $39.98)