When the founders of our nation penned the Constitution, they installed a system of checks and balances through the separating of powers of branches of government.
Among the components ensuring and reinforcing the freedoms were the freedoms of speech and the press, i.e. the right to criticize, praise or just brainstorm about the political process, which has been under attack particularly since Sept. 11.
Filmmaking, itself a form of protected expression, has had a special bond with the press. No, not the publicity, reviews and paparazzi, but dramatic productions demonstrating the “power of the press” (and media) influencing public opinion and exposing corruption.
“State of Play” does not rank in the classic arena with such similarly themed films as “Citizen Kane,” “Keeper of the Flame” or “All the President’s Men,” but by naming the classic foundations of the genre, you recognize that these newest reporters are formidable societal/moral conscience crusaders that uphold principles of investigative journalism.
Unassumingly, the film begins with what would appear a standard ambitious Congressman, played by Ben Affleck, having an affair with a young staff member (shades of Chandra Levy intern headlines). However, Rep. Stephen Collins has been snooping into financing and the hidden agenda of a top government defense contractor (fill in the letters, Halliburton).
Prior to the opening of Congressional hearings, the female staff member (Maria Thayer) slips in front of a D.C. metro, coincidentally at one of three camera-monitoring blind spots. Her death (at first labeled suicide) comes after a purse-snatcher grabs a case that contains more than bucks. During the return operation, the petty criminal and a man on a bike are shot.
Whew! Director Kevin (“ One Day in September,” “The Last King of Scotland”) jams these three mysteries into the opening five minutes, which galvanizes viewers’ eyes to the screen.
Enter the journalistic alternatives to cops. When Hollywood introduces a police reporter into the mix, you can be assured that though a few bullets will fly, there won’t be the massive f/x shootouts. Journalists use their intuitive intellectual abilities (along with getting a source drunk), rather than brawn, to track down clues and suspects.
Russell Crowe plays a scruffy, longhaired, messy, but brilliantly accurate veteran D.C. police reporter. He comes with an abundance of inside sources along with the baggage of balancing conflicts of interest (personal friendship with the Congressman; having the hots for the Congressman’s wife).
Adding both conscience and spontaneity, cub/blog reporter Della (Rachel McAdams), naively sums this one up as a powerful male politician taking sexual advantage of his assistant. Let’s torpedo this dude’s rep in print.
Attuned to the bludgeoning and bleeding of print journalism, hardened, anything-for-a-truthful-story editor, Cameron Lynne, played by Helen Mirren, formidably illustrates the always present but increasingly troublesome monetary (and advertiser) influenced balance, which surfaces when financial juggler threats subvert the truth from appearing on page one.
Obviously, major metropolitan journalism operations at one time only had staff and resources to pay salaries of full-time investigative reporters/researchers. Their skills have responsibly exposed political and corporate cover-ups, the most infamous of which are the Watergate Tapes and President Nixon’s involvement in the fiasco.
However, the conscience rattling or muckraking writer(s) have been dismembered by the consolidation of publishing power. “State of Play” delicately inserts the significance of separating media ownership from corporate political agendas. The mandate for a strong veil of separation was a reason the FCC originally imposed limits on the number of media (radio, TV, newspapers) one company could own in a major city.
Ownership variance then ensured a free marketplace of ideas and opinion. Preventing one or two news distribution gatekeepers stretches beyond a Democratic or Republican agenda. Instead it allows media/newspapers to stand as the guardian against amalgamation and the diminishing of democracy by political voices. This in turn guards against one mainstream viewpoint (with minute deviations) being channeled to the masses through media conglomerates.
It’s no coincidence that the alter egos of superheroes are members of the Fourth Estate from Clark Kent to publisher Britt Reid (Green Hornet) and photographer Peter Parker.
As an illustration of the troubled and conflicting responsibilities of the press, rumor has it that an ace police reporter at a daily got sacked for reporting that the employee of a major advertiser had been arrested for a drug crime, even though the public police blotter contained the same data. No competition existed in the market. True or false? Read Internet blogs.
Returning to “State of Play,” the conspiracies, cover-ups, and military secrets place more on the plate than the reputation of a societal icon. The drama indelibly thrusts scenarios where enterprising, inquiring and curious reporters become a breed of rogue detectives (without weapons), relying on dependable and trustworthy “sources” to mount evidence and thwart a menace.
Based on a BBC mini-series of the same name, the venue has been shifted to D.C., where buried crimes from the War on Terror threaten the emergence of a dominant security force in the homeland and internationally. A lean, sculpted and shrewdly twisting script has the stakes, personalities and ethical choices intriguingly floundering against the ever pressing deadline.
Not as tense as “China Syndrome” or as subtle and convoluted as “Parallax View,” “State of Play” unveils an intellectually superior challenge that’s a notch above “Pelican Brief” or “The Insider,” yet with the ultimate stakes of “Capicorn One.”
Catch this rubric of conspiracy genre par excellence. I’m waiting for someone to do the same for Sept. 11 and the fall of the World Trade Center, but I guess it’s still too soon for something that politically incorrect, yea?
Contact Tony at firstname.lastname@example.org