In the new thriller “State of Play,” a corporate-owned newspaper struggles with cutbacks, ethics and a changing media landscape to nail down and break an epic scandal of sex, politics and conspiracy in our nation’s capital.
In “The Soloist,” a lone newspaper columnist tries to change one homeless person’s life, and public and government attitudes toward homelessness, as he watches round after round of layoffs in his company’s newsroom.
Newspapers, as newspapers keep telling us, are in trouble. The flight of advertising and readership to the overly opinionated, under-reported Internet is threatening the medium’s ability to afford staffs of real reporters. And the crisis much discussed within this endangered industry has rippled into the culture at large. Without anybody really planning it, April has become National Newspapers in Peril Month at the movies.
“Your profession has taken a bit of a slamming in recent years,” says Joe Wright, the British director of “The Soloist.” “We seem to have lost focus on what great journalism can mean and can achieve and the importance of having people on the newspaper payroll to root around in the darker recesses of society and maybe come up with something that everyone needs to know.”
Kevin Macdonald, the Scot who directed the big-screen adaptation of “State of Play,” agrees. Newspaper reporting, he says “may not sound like great fodder for a conspiracy thriller, but it is. Without journalists tracking down what the truth is, without them asking the difficult questions, the bad guys get away with it. That notion is at the heart of my movie.”
At their sources - a non-fiction book and a British TV series - neither film was really “about” the crisis in newspapers. But “The Soloist’s” Wright says that when his screenwriter, Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”), came on board “she saw the bigger picture, this threat to an important institution, and moved it front and center in her script.”
Macdonald hit upon the theme while researching his version of “State of Play,” which is set at a Washington newspaper not named The Washington Post.
“It became more and more obvious that this was the crisis in newspapers that would be the backdrop for my movie. You can see this crisis growing and growing and it’s gotten much worse since we started the film.”
Macdonald’s film contrasts gossipy bloggers with dogged, digging print reporters, with a blogger (Rachel McAdams) seeing the light. “A piece this big, people should probably have newsprint on their fingers when they read it.”
Both filmmakers were struck by the stark difference between American papers and papers “back home, where they just print whatever they fancy,” jokes Macdonald. Both were fascinated by the changing image of print reporters in the culture at large, as Macdonald notes “from ‘The Front Page’ and ‘Sweet Smell of Success,’ where they were unethical hacks, to ‘All the President’s Men,’ where they are heroes.”
But as that’s not the way the public today views the press, says Robert Thompson, head of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. The public lumps reporters in general “right down there with lawyers, coincidentally another profession that’s vital to the function of a democracy,” Thompson says. And two movies alone won’t raise their stature.
“You have to have a succession of movies showing the press in this light, and the fact that it’s in danger, to truly make people aware of what the death of newspapers might mean.”
Even if “State of Play” and “The Soloist” are both hits, Thompson says, something more direct is needed to shift the zeitgeist.
“What journalism needs is a GREAT documentary on the subject to motivate public opinion, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ for journalism. If a movie like that came out about the newspaper industry, pummeling us with arguments and data, and is gripping in how it presents the apocalyptic threat to democracy ... that it gets people talking about that, that would be really useful.”
But even if that “Inconvenient” movie were in theaters today, “it might be too late. Let’s face it, a lot of that newspaper ‘icecap’ has melted.”
And it may sound “pompous to talk about newspapers’ importance in society when you’ve only made a thriller,” admits Macdonald. “But I’m not a journalist, so I can say it. This is worth talking about in a movie.”