I saw two movies this week, both featuring superheroes.
No, they did not sprout knife blades out of their knuckles. These people had the kind of superpowers I could relate to: the ability to make deadline; the power to wheedle information out of receptionists; the subtle wit to insult editors without getting fired.
I’m talking about newspaper reporters and columnists.
The first movie is “State of Play,” a thriller starring Russell Crowe as a disheveled and poorly dressed Washington, D.C., reporter. The second is “The Soloist,” a drama starring Robert Downey Jr. as a disheveled and poorly dressed L.A. columnist.
The former uncovers a vast political conspiracy. The latter (based on L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez) befriends a homeless, mentally ill musical genius, who plays a two-stringed violin on the street.
I loved these two movies because they reinforced the twin pillars of my beliefs: (1) that newspapers continue to matter and (2) that columnists are lovable rogues who do good work for their community and look a lot like Robert Downey Jr.
Ah, Hollywood. Where fantasy rules.
However, in the same way a reporter might go to a hospital and find out if real life resembles “Grey’s Anatomy,” I thought I’d analyze whether these movies bear any resemblance to reality.
The poorly dressed factor – Cal McAffrey, the fictional Washington reporter, and columnist Steve Lopez are both middle-age men who dress as if they were sophomores at the local community college. Lopez favors a Grateful Dead T-shirt and ball cap. This makes him practically a Regency fop by the standards of some columnists I know, but still, I give both movies two thumbs up.
The disheveled factor – McAffrey has apparently not had a haircut since the Watergate story broke. Neither men have a close acquaintance with Gillette or Schick. Two thumbs up.
The unstable personal life factor – Both McAffrey and Lopez are depicted as men who pour their souls into their work, and in consequence, have a little problem with stability and commitment. In other words, both can be A-Number One jerks. Two thumbs up.
The deadline factor – In “State of Play,” the editors hold the presses for four hours in order to get the big story in the paper. Four hours? Sure, if you don’t mind your morning paper becoming an afternoon paper. Two thumbs down.
The downsizing factor – Neither movie ignores the perilous financial state of newspapers. Both show reporters and editors being laid off and taking buyouts. I half expected Lopez to end up, in an ironic plot twist, homeless on the street and playing a violin. Two thumbs up.
The frantic newsroom factor – Both movies use all of the usual tricks – people scurrying in the background, editors yelling orders while striding purposefully through a maze of desks — to show how busy, loud and chaotic a newsroom is. Problem is, this doesn’t jibe with “the downsizing factor” above. Let me put it this way: It would have been more realistic to show an acre of empty space in the middle of the newsroom for, let’s say, a conversation pit or a miniature golf course. Two thumbs down.
The newspapers still matter factor – In “State of Play,” a deadly cover-up is thwarted by the skill of two reporters backed by the power of the old-fashioned press. In “The Soloist,” one talented columnist shines a light on the shameful conditions for the homeless in L.A., and opens the eyes of hundreds of thousands of readers. In consequence, the city resolves to rectify the problem.
This is not, despite my earlier wisecrack, mere nostalgic fantasy. Newspapers may be hurting, but don’t assume they have lost their clout. Despite all of the losses and declines, today’s edition of this newspaper will be seen by at least 200,000 readers and probably a lot more. Newspapers can still make a difference — maybe not as dramatically as in Hollywood — yet nevertheless, a true and powerful difference.
Two thumbs up.