This article was first published on Damaris’s Culturewatch website, and is used with permission. © Copyright Tony Watkins, 2009
In many ways, State of Play is an old-fashioned journalistic drama in which a shabby, hard-bitten journalist risks the wrath of his demanding editor to unearth the truth. But it is much more than this. It is also a gripping political thriller, full of twists, turns and tension. It does have many familiar elements in it – clichés even – but it’s so well put together that this doesn’t spoil the ride. It’s well written, tightly directed by Kevin Macdonald, and with strong performances from all the leads.
Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is covering the story of an apparently random shooting in Washington DC for his paper, the Washington Globe, when he sees an old friend of his on the news. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is a rising star in Congress. He’s handsome, bright and ambitious, and is chairing a committee investigating defence spending. What catches McCaffrey’s attention is that Collins’s attractive young research assistant, Sonia Baker, has died – and Collins is clearly very cut up about it. McAffrey is irritated when a very junior colleague, the Globe’s political blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), comes to ask if Collins was having an affair with Sonia. McAffrey rebuffs her enquiries, but before long their demanding editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) has them working together on the story. It’s a story of deceit, corruption and murder. Apparently unrelated events turn out to be connected, and nothing is quite as it first seems.
State of Play is based on the outstanding BBC mini-series from 2003. The series was written by Paul Abbott, who was very wary about his work being adapted for the big screen. His original was six hours of taut drama, and he was understandably concerned about how it could be condensed down to the length of a feature film. The choice of Kevin Macdonald to direct was critical. He had only made one feature film previously, though The Last King of Scotland was an extremely impressive debut. But his background is as an acclaimed documentary maker and so the theme of digging for the truth of a story resonated very strongly with him. He too was concerned about the problem of distilling the essence of Abbott’s work into two hours. The solution was to change it radically. ‘Although the basic story is the same,’ he explains, ‘there’s a lot that’s very different about it. You realise you can’t make another version of something that was good. You have to reinvent, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.’
Cal McAffrey is untidy, single and doggedly determined to expose the truth. McAffrey may fit the stereotype of an old-school journalist, but he is far from being a two-dimensional character. His friendship with Stephen Collins is complex. Having been room-mates at college, they go back a long way, but it is clear that there has been significant tension between them in the past (for reasons that become clear as the film progresses). However, once all the news media start falling over themselves to speculate on an affair between Collins and Sonia, it is McAffrey to whom Collins turns. They have not been talking about the situation for long before McAffrey’s nose for a story makes him suspect that what appears to be a tragic accident may well be much more sinister. Collins’s work on the defence spending committee is bringing him into sharp conflict with private security firms on which the Government is spending vast sums in the Middle East. Could it be that these commercial interests want Collins out of the picture?
While McAffrey follows up his leads, checks out his sources and (sometimes) files his stories in time for the presses to roll, Della Frye is driven by the need to publish something online as fast as possible. In the blogging world she can’t afford to be second. As far as McAffrey is concerned, she is part of the new breed of upstarts who hardly deserve to be called journalists. The tension between print and online journalism, and the decline in newspapers is an interesting and timely subtheme in the film. R.B. Brenner, Metro editor for the Washington Post remarks, ‘In the old world if a story happened at noon, I’m thinking, “OK, we have ten hours until the deadline and the paper’s going to roll.” Now I need to think, “We have two minutes” because readers are going to start coming to our website and want to know the story right now.” As editor, Cam Lynne is feeling the pressure created by the changing face of journalism. They can no longer afford to sit on a story for a day or two while they establish all the facts, confident that competitor papers are a few steps behind, because the story will already be playing out online, whether accurately or not. Now, she insists, they should go to press with a story even if it’s wrong. Then over subsequent days, they can print revised versions, all of which helps sell the paper. McAffrey, naturally, is something of a rebel and keeps stalling with filing the story. He’s sure there’s more to find out. Cam thinks that McAffrey is paranoid when he suggests that there is a conspiracy. But once he finds an indisputable link between the shooting he’s reporting on and the Collins affair, it is clear that the story is ‘as big and as connected as they get’.
Cal McAffrey is concerned above all else with what is true. Collins accuses his friend of turning him into a story, rather than helping him, but the journalist is convinced that the way to do that is by exposing the corrupt corporate forces at play behind the scenes. ‘We’re going to fight back with our own facts,’ he says. Cam is also unhappy at McAffrey investigating a story involving an old friend: ‘Good reporters don’t have friends,’ she says. ‘Only sources.’ When it comes down to it, McAffrey thinks the same. He will do whatever it takes to get to the truth, whether that means compromising his friendships or acting in dubious ways. ‘Did we just break the law?’ asks Della at one point. ‘No,’ replies her colleague, ‘that’s what you call damn fine reporting.’ This exposes an important tension within Cal McAffrey. On the one hand, he is passionately concerned about truth. And yet, while he demands that people have integrity, his own is sometimes compromised. He would argue that he transgresses the boundaries for the sake of a higher good, the truth of the story, but he is as prepared to do so with the apparently minor stories as well as the obviously major ones.
Despite these compromises, McAffrey’s commitment to truth comes through very strongly. He is not remotely relativist: what is true is really true, no matter how someone else sees it or spins it. ‘This is a real story,’ he says to Della. ‘It’s not open for interpretation and it does not require opinion.’ Kevin Macdonald describes Della as ‘easy with her opinions and not so hard on the facts.’ But once she gets stuck into the story, she too becomes concerned to unearth the truth. At a time when journalism has come to be viewed with suspicion, even cynicism, it’s good to be reminded that truth is still important in the public sphere. McAffrey insists very strongly that people still care about the truth; the public still wants it and deserves to be told it. He’s right: people do still want to know what is really true. The reason both journalists and politicians are viewed so negatively is because we have come to expect that they are spinning a story for us, telling us what we want to hear or making up sleazy allegations in order to discredit someone. ‘There’s a crisis of credibility in journalism,’ says Russell Crowe. ‘Newspapers can taint people to a massive degree and some people never recover from how they’ve been tainted.’ In a recent UK survey, only 3% of those questioned admitted to trusting journalists, and only 1% said they trusted politicians. But this lack of trust is something that matters to us; we wish we could trust these professions. The reality, of course, is that many politicians and journalists are people of integrity; it’s just that we only notice when people get it wrong.
A key question is why we have reached this point where truth seldom seems to matter to politicians and journalists. Part of the answer is that people who are ambitious to get to the top will often become ruthless and put expediency above integrity: anything is justified in the scramble to climb up. Another part of the answer is that the public has developed an apparently insatiable hunger for sensation. We will lap up whatever sleaze and scandal we can find – and thanks to the Internet we can find plenty of it – whether or not it is true. We are guilty of double standards, though. We accuse journalists of playing fast and loose with the truth, yet we are titillated by the salacious stories they give us. It raises the question of how concerned we are with truth and integrity in our own lives. How often do we play fast and loose with the facts, disparage or even slander people behind their backs, and spin stories to cast us in a good light? How ready are we to believe the office gossip rather than take time to establish the facts? We believe in the idea of a Cal McAffrey-like thorough investigation into the facts, yet our day-to-day experience is often much more like Della’s first blog on Collins: quick to point the finger of blame regardless of what the truth is.
The tension between integrity and sleaze is in all of us to some extent. We know that we are moral failures, that we will do all sorts of things in order to put ourselves at the centre – expressions of our rebellion against God – and yet we admire integrity and goodness and, deep down at least, we value truth – the side of human nature which reveals something of the image of God within us. We wish the latter dominated, but we know how easily the former overwhelms us. This is the fundamental problem in journalism, politics and society because the corruption within our hearts is the fundamental problem facing each one of us. Society needs transforming, but transformation happens one person at a time. And the only thing that can really transform us within is the good news of God, in the person of Jesus Christ, taking on himself the punishment we deserve for our rebellion against him, rising from death and sending his Holy Spirit to live and work in those who trust in him. This message, which at times has had a radical impact on public life, is often treated with derision in our society. It is dismissed out of hand, derided and misrepresented. And this is most often by people who have never investigated the facts, never dug and dug to find the truth, but who make snap judgments or simply go along with the crowd, as noted journalist A.N. Wilson has recently admitted to doing when he abandoned Christian faith twenty years ago. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the biggest news there has ever been, and the evidence is there to be examined by anyone who, like Cal McAffrey, is prepared to investigate it thoroughly.