At a time when the New York Times Co. is demanding a 23-percent pay cut from all employees of the Boston Globe as a prerequisite for the paper staying in business, it's touching that Hollywood still regards print journalists as suitable subjects for movies.
Not that audiences think so, mind you. In its opening weekend, Kevin Macdonald's State of Play ran a distant third to Obsessed and 17 Again. Then the movie's box office really went into free fall, dropping more than 50 percent in the second week. But that was nothing compared with the fate of Rod Lurie's Nothing But the Truth, which can stand as a metaphor for the state of all newspapers today. Despite mostly excellent reviews, including a resounding endorsement from Roger Ebert, Nothing But the Truth never got a proper theatrical release, thanks to the bankruptcy of its distributor, Yari Film Group. Only with its DVD release April 28 did the film reach a mass audience.
A taut, involving thriller that uses a fictional newspaper, the Washington Globe, as its setting, State of Play bears very little resemblance to my own workaday experience of Washington, D.C., journalism, though I know a few reporters who resemble Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe). Based on a BBC miniseries I've not yet seen (and certainly also on a scandal that caused the names "Gary Condit" and "Chandra Levy" to resound in every U.S. household), State of Play starts with McAffrey, a shaggy hippie dinosaur who drives a battered Saab and lives on booze and junk food, reporting on three deaths. A young researcher on the staff of his old college buddy Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) has fallen to her death in front of a Metro train. Meanwhile, two other bodies are discovered in an alley, and one of them has a briefcase stuffed with information about PointCorp, a sinister, Blackwater-like government defense contractor.
From there the revelations pile up thick and fast: the researcher didn't fall, but was pushed, and Collins—who is heading congressional hearings into the activities of PointCorp—breaks down during a hearing and admits to having had an affair with her.
Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), McAffrey's beleaguered editor, wants to forge ahead with the news of the affair, but McAffrey insists there is a deeper story involving PointCorp that will be lost forever if the paper rushes the story into print too soon. Lynne—who hates McAffrey's guts but tolerates him because he gets scoops—doesn't trust him to be objective, so she assigns Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), one of the paper's up-and-coming bloggers, to work the story with him. McAffrey and Frye immediately lock horns; the older reporter believes in getting the story right, the younger one—brought up in the age of Matt Drudge--in just getting it written. Unfortunately—but realistically given the current state of journalism—it is Frye's approach that Lynne, who is being pressured by the paper's owners to get attention-grabbing headlines at all costs, encourages.
As the investigation ensues, we learn further intriguing details, such as McAffrey's college affair with, and continuing feelings for, Collins' wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn). Meanwhile, the menacing, dark-suited figures that start following McAffrey and Frye around town begin to persuade Frye that, perhaps, McAffrey is on to something after all.
To put it mildly, Philip Marlowe didn't have as many bullets flying at him as Cal McAffrey and Della Frye do. The cloak-and-dagger aspects of State of Play—which include the videotaping of recalcitrant witnesses in a fleabag hotel and a rogue special-ops assassin on the loose—leave the story far beyond any practice of journalism in my own experience. But besides the story's taut pacing and technical polish, State of Play is true to the basic spirit of journalism—the quest for truth, wherever it leads you, and telling that truth to the public without compromise. A reporter's job, ideally, isn't that much different from that of a detective, except that his publication—not a .38 special or the penal laws—is his method of enforcement. The profession and its practitioners often fall below that standard, yet the standard remains. Cal McAffrey lives by that standard like a knight of old, and Della Frye's working with him becomes, in essence, her moral education.
It is fortunate for the film that Brad Pitt, who was originally cast as McAffrey, dropped out, allowing Macdonald to replace a very good actor with a great one. Russell Crowe is capable of suggesting more depth with one glance than most actors can in an entire movie, and the nooks and crannies of McAffrey's character give Crowe ample opportunity to climb into McAffrey's rumpled but unbowed soul. McAffrey, whose life is a shambles and who looks like he's about to hit you up for spare change, schmoozes hard-bitten police officers and high government officials like a master, persuading them by the sheer force of his personality to tell him what he wants to know. Crowe makes him believable every step of the way.
There is similarly sharp acting from Mirren (who skillfully makes her character more sympathetic than her dialogue would indicate), McAdams, Penn, and Jason Bateman, a standout as a wormy little cog in the conspiracy who fancies himself a major Washington player. As Collins, Affleck makes an interesting contrast with Crowe. Affleck is considerably more of a surface actor than Crowe, and the eight-year age difference between Crowe and Affleck—remember they are supposed to be former college roommates--is evident. Yet those factors add to Affleck's credibility as a professional politician, obsessed with outward appearances, looking good, and deflecting every possible piece of bad news. Affleck's surface polish makes the revelations toward the film's end—revelations I guarantee you will not see coming—all the more startling.
Nothing But the Truth, in contrast with State of Play, is not strictly speaking a thriller. But, in its portrayal of a newspaper scandal that turns tragic, it will keep you on the edge of your seat. Whereas State of Play is a tribute—and perhaps an elegy—to daily journalism as it has been practiced the last hundred years, Nothing But the Truth offers a chilling explanation as to why that kind of journalism faces extinction.
Like State of Play, Nothing But the Truth is set at a fictitious Washington, D.C., newspaper—in this case the Capital City Sun-Times. Based very loosely on the Judith Miller-Valerie Plame affair, Nothing But the Truth begins with a presidential assassination attempt, followed quickly by the revelation that the U.S. has invaded Venezuela based on erroneous information that the Venezuelan president ordered the attack. An anonymous CIA operative reportedly tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the president with incontrovertible facts showing that Venezuela had nothing to do with it.
Based on information from a source she refuses to reveal, Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale), an ambitious reporter on the Sun-Times, knows who the CIA operative was—Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga), wife of the former ambassador to Great Britain. Rachel knows Erica vaguely; they are fellow soccer moms, with Rachel's son and Erica's daughter attending the same elementary school. During a school soccer game, Rachel approaches Erica with her revelation. Erica predictably recoils, but her reaction is enough for Rachel to write the story, after getting the go-ahead from her editor (Angela Bassett) and the paper's anal-retentive attorney (Noah Wyle).
So the story is published—and from that moment, it will give away nothing to reveal, both Rachel's and Erica's lives are ruined. Rachel immediately becomes the target of hard-charging federal district attorney Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon), who regards Rachel and her anonymous source as traitors to their country and doesn't care how long he has to keep Rachel in jail to get her to reveal her source's identity. Rachel turns out to be a lot tougher than Dubois supposes, but as her jail term drags on month after month, her principled stand is increasingly seen by her husband Ray (David Schwimmer) and small son Timmy as a betrayal and deliberate desertion. Meanwhile, besides being deactivated as a CIA agent, Erica finds her personal life falling apart, and her former colleagues suspect her of outing herself as revenge against the administration for not heeding her warnings.
Lurie's screenplay for Nothing But the Truth continues on an unpredictable but logical path, including a tragedy about two-thirds of the way through that would in itself be a crime to reveal, but which turns the story on its head. The movie can, and should, be read as a plea for greater legal protections for reporters, but there are far too many themes going on in it to reduce its message so simplistically.
Nothing But the Truth has a strong feminist subtext in the stories of Rachel and Erica, two strong, intelligent women forced by fate into an adversarial relationship and ground into the dirt because of it.
Even more, however, the film goes a long way in depicting, if not necessarily explaining, the precipitous fall in the prestige of print journalists over the past few decades. Recent public opinion polls show that journalists rank in the public trust with used-car salesmen. It's hard to say precisely when and how the change in public perception started, but it began long before the Internet and the proliferation of bloggers. Whether it was the arrogance (real or perceived) of investigative journalists; the role journalists played in bringing down a president who, despite his misdeeds, was still beloved by millions of Americans; the increasing dominance of celebrity gossip in print and television news broadcasts; the creation of journalists themselves as celebrities, on exactly the same level as the public figures they interview; or the arrogation of trustworthiness by explicitly right-wing commentators to themselves alone, the result is clear, as Albert Burnside (Alan Alda), Rachel's attorney, spells out in advising her at long last to reveal her source. "Somewhere along the line, we stopped being the good guys," he says. "People stopped seeing us as the white knights, and started seeing us as the dragons."
In other words, the public stopped caring about reporters. It is indifferent to them, and to the extent it thinks about them, it is unremittingly hostile. Of course the nation pays an enormous price for that indifference, but it is also indifferent to that. People like Patton Dubois—who undoubtedly will win high office based on his record of prosecuting Rachel—are the heroes.
Even here, however, Lurie paints no black-and-white moral pictures. Essentially the film boils down to the fight between Rachel and Dubois; neither is totally admirable, but both advance excellent political and ethical arguments. Rachel stands for the necessity of free journalistic inquiry as the backbone of a democratic society; Dubois stands for the safety of his country's agents and the security and safety of his country itself. Those opposing arguments lie at the very root of the democratic system. The problem, as Lurie demonstrates, is that recent changes in the law have tipped the scales too heavily in Dubois' favor. Because of this, Rachel inevitably becomes more sympathetic as her suffering increases, while Dubois becomes progressively more of a Grand Inquisitor.
Nevertheless, that doesn't change the fact that Rachel, in reporting the story that outed Erica, was thinking mostly of advancing her own career. Even the film's final, bitterly ironic twist, which reveals Rachel's source, leaves you wondering: was Rachel protecting or cynically exploiting this source? I myself am not sure what to think of it, but it does not cast Rachel in a saintly light.
Throughout the film, Lurie is careful to individualize his characters, and without exception the actors respond with rich, powerful performances. Had the film received its full release, most of those actors—certainly Beckinsale, Dillon, Farmiga and Alda—would have been serious Oscar contenders. One of Lurie's most inspired moves was to cast Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment attorney who represented Judith Miller in the Valerie Plame case, as the judge in Rachel's case. Abrams' presence goes far beyond stunt casting; he speaks and moves as a true man of the law, not an actor, and in turn he curbs the more "actorly" impulses of his co-stars, giving the courtroom scenes an almost documentary verisimilitude.
It would be fun someday if Macdonald and Lurie put their heads together and made a movie pitting Cal McAffrey against Patton Dubois. That would be something to see, particularly if Crowe and Dillon returned in those roles. Meanwhile, audiences have State of Play and Nothing But the Truth, two very fine films (approaching greatness in the latter case) to entertain them as the great metropolitan dailies—the printing and distribution of which are shown under the final credits of State of Play—become a memory.