Wednesday, April 22, 2009

paper play

I've been beaten to the punch by a real journalist. That's how it should be, of course.

I didn't realize until a couple weeks ago that The Soloist, the based-on-a-true-story drama about a schizophrenic, homeless musical prodigy (Jamie Foxx) and the newspaper columnist (Robert Downey Jr.) who writes about him, was set to open one week after State of Play, the political thriller starring Russell Crowe as a D.C. newspaper reporter. The Soloist was originally set to be released last November; I'm not sure why it was moved from awards season to April 24, the week before X-Men Origins: Wolverine kicks off the summer season and drowns out all the remaining spring releases, though it's never a good sign when a film's release date is pushed back nearly six months. (It was advertised during the Oscar telecast in February rather than being Oscar bait awarded during the telecast.)

Two high-profile movies in two weeks starring A-list actors as newspaper reporters! And at a time when newspapers are struggling, yet for many of us they're still the most trusted source of news, and the people who bring us that news remain fascinating characters who are well suited to dramas, thrillers, comedies, and romance—whatever genre provides a good story, just as they try to provide good stories, as long as those stories don't get in the way of the truth ... Okay, sometimes we like to watch fictional reporters discard the truth for a good story, but in real life we tend to look down on the Jayson Blairs of the business.

Back to what I was saying to begin with—David Denby of The New Yorker has already published his dual review of State of Play and The Soloist, and he notes the closeness of their release dates in his opening paragraph:

Sometimes a mere coincidence in Hollywood’s haphazard release schedule crystallizes a national moment—a gathering mood, a twinge of longing. Two ambitious new movies, “The Soloist” and “State of Play,” both offer the stirring sight of a daily newspaper being reported, printed, and delivered—loaded into trucks and flung onto front lawns before dawn. And that’s not all: in “State of Play,” the deadline for an important investigative piece is repeatedly pushed back until the reporter can get the full story; in “The Soloist,” a series of newspaper articles causes a mayor to change a city’s social policies. Each movie features, at its center, the kind of scruffy urban hero whom Raymond Chandler canonized long ago (“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean”)—in this case, not a private eye but a print journalist, slovenly and sleepless, hounded by editors, comfortable only in a banged-up Saab. He may be disorganized and inadequate in his personal life, but his professional instincts are superb. He knows how the city works; there’s no door he can’t open. Are the two movies simply sentimental? No, they deal directly with the economic threat to news coverage. Both newspapers in question—the Los Angeles Times, in “The Soloist,” and a Washington daily clearly modelled on the Post, in “State of Play”—are struggling to cut costs and stay in business, a difficult situation in which a talented reporter who takes his time is both a nuisance and a blessing. However else these movies succeed or fail, they tout the daily newspaper as guardian of a city’s integrity and soul.

Denby adds near the end of the review that in State of Play "Rachel McAdams is a cocky blogger who has to learn how much work goes into actual reporting," and "Crowe has an animal quickness and sensitivity, a threatening way of penetrating what someone is up to, a feeling for weakness in friends as well as opponents. He seems every inch a great journalist; it’s not his fault that the filmmakers let the big story slip through their fingers."

Brad Pitt was originally supposed to play Cal McAffrey, the role that Crowe inherited, but the filmmakers seem to have caught a lucky break by getting Crowe at the last minute: even though he'll always look like a movie star, he's put on some weight in the last few years, adding to his already burly frame and making him look like the kind of reporter who should probably get his personal life in order and start jogging. Maybe that's one reason why Crowe took the part, i.e. "You mean I don't have to take off the weight I gained for Body of Evidence? Good, because this body of carbs is harder to slim down than I thought." Even though Crowe looks like a movie star no matter what he plays—a problem every movie star has—Pitt looks nothing like any reporter I've ever seen in person. Then again, his previous-generation cinematic doppelganger, Robert Redford, looks nothing like a reporter either, and he worked out just fine as Bob Woodward in All the President's Men (1976), one of the best newspaper movies Hollywood has produced.

Roger Ebert's review of State of Play last Friday in the Chicago Sun-Times adds a funny observation about reality in movies versus the way things work at an actual newspaper: "When Cal and his sidekick the perky blogger solve the mystery and are back in the office and it is noted 'Cameron [the fictional Washington Globe's editor] has been holding the presses four hours!'—I think her new corporate bosses will want to have a long, sad talk with her, after which she will discover if the company still offers severance packages."

Cameron is played by Helen Mirren, and Ebert notes that the Globe's new owners are "on her neck to cut costs, redesign the venerable front page, get more scoops and go for the gossip today"—hence bloggers like McAdams's character—"instead of waiting for the Pulitzer tomorrow." Ebert refuses to believe that movies like State of Play represent the last stand of newspaper movies, "because no matter what happens to newspapers, the newspaper movie is a durable genre. Shouting 'stop the presses!' is ever so much more exciting than shouting 'stop the upload!'" I agree, and it's similar to how I'll feel if I ever hear a contemporary song that contains a line like "When you texted me this morning" or "My baby, she wrote me an e-mail." It just don't sound right. (At Popdose last fall I wrote about The Paper, a newspaper movie that takes great pride in the tradition of newspaper movies with its own “Stop the presses!” moment.)

In an interview with The Decider back in February, Ebert was asked what he thought of all the "regular people" writing their own movie reviews on blogs or posting video reviews on YouTube. He replied, "Some are really gifted, some should hang it up. [But] the flaw in the theory that the Net will replace newspapers is that the Net borrows, directly or indirectly, most of its content from newspapers. Today you can cite the New York Times. Would you rather cite a blogger in East Jesus, Iowa?"

Of course not. And even though I quote directly from newspapers all the time, you can cite me if you want. I'm a blogger who's neither perky nor cocky, and I do a great job of disguising my movie-star handsomeness.

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