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The type of journalist played by Russell Crowe in State of Play may already be history

Peter Whittle

We can gauge how low our political culture has sunk by the quality of our scandals. Claims for porn movies on expenses are a long, long way from Chappaquiddick or the Jeremy Thorpe trial. We all know that fiddling receipts is wrong, but what depresses us most is the crushing smallness of it, the sheer tawdriness.

What the current round of MP-bashing really demonstrates is that all passion has been spent. The political game no longer has consequences, the people in it are, by and large, of inferior quality and we likewise have been reduced to catching them out when they jump the ticket barrier. It’s demeaning for everybody but surely most of all for journalists, who, like spooks longing nostalgically for the Cold War, must look back enviously to the days of Watergate and movies like All the President’s Men and The Parallax View, which depicted them as investigators who were in way over their heads, but emerged as heroes.

Or maybe the journalists have changed, too. Certainly, Cal McAffrey, the veteran Washington reporter at the centre of the new political thriller State of Play, looks like a throwback. As played by Russell Crowe, he’s paunchy, long-haired and unkempt. He drives a wreck of a car and his desk is a tsunami of books and clippings. He’s also extremely likeable, macho in a countercultural kind of way and, most importantly, is serious about what he does. Younger viewers might well look at this character and be inspired to be a journalist.

How realistic a character Cal is, in an era when so many newsrooms look more like insurance company offices, is more doubtful.

The film itself seems to acknowledge this. Cal rails against the growing culture of instant opinion and blogging represented by his junior colleague Della (Rachel McAdams) and stretches the patience of an editor (Helen Mirren) desperate to halt the decline in sales. That we’re meant to be on his side is never in question: from the moment we see him speeding erratically to a possible crime scene, to the rolling of the presses as the final credits go up, this is a film firmly on the side of newsprint.

In between is an absorbing story of murder, corruption and cover-up inside the Beltway, which takes us very effectively back to the big-time conspiracies of 1970s Hollywood. Directed by Kevin MacDonald, who made the excellent The Last King of Scotland, it’s an adaptation of a critically praised British TV series by Paul Abbott from six years ago. In all essentials it remains unchanged, although uprooting it from its dank London terraces and substituting Congress for Parliament automatically gives it, whether we like to admit it or not, more heft and glamour, and the whiff of real power.

The further Cal investigates two seemingly quite separate deaths, the more they become linked. One is that of the young female researcher to an ambitious and rising Congressman (played by Ben Affleck), who also happens to be one of the reporter’s oldest friends. Personal compromises and conflicts of interest vie with the looming presence of huge corporate interests at work behind the scenes.

This allows for a few wholly predictable political points to be made – the company involved is a massive private security firm doing well out of the Iraq war and the “Muslim terrorist goldrush”. But just as the heart begins to sink, the narrative steps back from this and takes another turn which, if you’re unfamiliar with the television series, comes as a genuine surprise.

Corners have had to be cut in the transition to the screen and the film occasionally resorts to cliché. Show me a political thriller and I’ll show you an underground car park at night. But it is so tightly written that one finds oneself concluding that maybe the original series was, in fact, rather long-winded.

This is a movie which has been made with a guiding intelligence and adult viewers in its sights, and that’s one of the highest compliments you can pay contemporary Hollywood. For a good couple of hours, it very effectively takes us away from a world of 88p bath-plugs.

Those of you who get worked up at the way in which films distort history for their own ends should stay well away from Richard Curtis’s latest effort, The Boat That Rocked. This crude comedy starring Bill Nighy, about a pirate pop radio station in the 1960s, loosely based on Radio Caroline, asks us to believe that the whole country was being deprived of the pirates’ brand of cultural contraband by nasty, repressive establishment types determined to stamp out such free-spiritedness. In fact, the campaign against Caroline was conducted by a Labour government and spearheaded by the then postmaster-general, that famously uptight reactionary, Anthony Wedgwood Benn.

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