'State' director on his own paper chase

April 12, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Newspaper movies have a proud tradition, one that goes at least as far back as 1931's The Front Page. Over the years, it has produced such crowd favorites as His Girl Friday (1940), Deadline USA (1952) and Absence of Malice (1981), as well as recognized classics like Citizen Kane (1941) and the genre's pinnacle, All the President's Men (1976).

State of Play director Kevin Macdonald hopes his film, the newest entry in Hollywood's journalistic canon, isn't the last.

"You have to wonder, do people really care about journalism anymore?" the Scottish-born director asks over the phone from his home in London. "I think that's one of the very big issues we face today."

It's certainly one faced by newspapers everywhere. In a world where anyone, anywhere can post his or her thoughts about anything online, regardless of how true or well-researched or responsible the information is (or isn't), the traditional newspaper is threatened with becoming an anachronism.

In State of Play, the story revolves around a crusading congressman (Ben Affleck) and the Haliburton-ish defense contractor he seems intent on bringing down. But much of the tension comes from the tug of war between traditional newspaperman Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), who wants to get the story right before its goes in the paper, and young blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), whose bosses seem more concerned that she get her pithy observations online as fast as possible, regardless of how far along the story is.

Macdonald stresses, however, that State of Play is no screed, that within the world of the film, things are not always what they seem. As in 2006's The Last King of Scotland, the film that brought him great notices and Forest Whitaker an Oscar for playing Ugandan strongman Idi Amin, Macdonald highlights flawed heroes, characters who are both more and less than they seem.

In State of Play, McAffrey and Frye often find their roles reversed, and each has something to learn from the other. "In the end," Macdonald notes, "she's the one who puts it all together. It turns out that, at times, he's been the hypocrite, he's been bending the rules."

And both characters, he adds with noticeable glee, are there in service of a story that celebrates many of the newspaper movies that preceded it. Nods to All the President's Men abound, including the most obvious: Parts of the film are set in the Watergate building.

Macdonald and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray even throw in a nod to the most famous fictional newspaperwoman of all time. If Della Frye sounds suspiciously like the name of another fictional reporter - two syllables, followed by one - the resemblance is purely intentional.

"Yes, Lois Lane, absolutely," Macdonald says with a laugh. "That was a very conscious decision. We had several meetings about that, and some thought that it was too much. But I liked the idea."

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