‘What happens when journalists aren’t there to ask the difficult questions of politicians?” That’s just one concern Kevin Macdonald, the 41-year-old Scottish documentary filmmaker turned director, is raising with his new political thriller, “State of Play.”
The movie, which stars Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren and Rachel McAdams, is set during these tumultuous times for the fourth estate.
The backdrop for this tale of inside-the-Beltway conspiracy and intrigue is a Washington, D.C., newspaper, similar to The Washington Post, except without the benevolent Graham family as the owners.
It captures the feeling of an industry in transition, perpetually under economic pressures from the outside, while inside a battle for supremacy reigns between the brash but unseasoned young bloggers and the traditional hard-charging gumshoe reporters.
This is the kind of movie where the closing shot is a loving look at newspapers traveling through the printing plant.
“It’s the last hurrah for this analog technology. You look at it and it feels like this noble beast, the last lion in the wilderness,” Macdonald says. “That’s what got me interested in a film about journalism.”
The film, based on the gripping 2003 six-hour British miniseries of the same name, begins with what seem to be unrelated events: A street kid is gunned down in an alley. A beautiful, young woman working on the Hill dies in a subway accident.
While investigating the shooting for his newspaper, disheveled but tenacious reporter Cal McAffrey (Crowe) uncovers connections between the deaths – and what may be a larger government conspiracy involving a private, Halliburton-like military contractor – that could derail the career of his old college buddy Stephen Collins (Affleck), an ambitious congressman.
Making matters even more complicated, Crowe’s character has had an affair with the congressman’s wife, played by Robin Wright Penn.
In an updating of the miniseries, McAdams plays a newbie blogger, more accustomed to pontificating than reporting, who finds herself paired with Crowe, who has major conflict-of-interest issues as the investigation delves deeper into his friend’s past.
Mirren plays the paper’s acerbic top editor, caught between the financial demands of the paper and her desire to break big news and speak truth to power.
Crowe wasn’t the original choice to play McAffrey. Brad Pitt initially was cast as the conflicted but dogged newsman, and even made a dashing research visit to the Washington Post.
“It was the biggest thing that ever happened there,” Macdonald says wryly.
He’s circumspect about what happened to Pitt, who dropped out a week before shooting was set to start in November 2007. That in turn led to Edward Norton, who was supposed to play the congressman, also leaving the project.
Pitt was unhappy with the script and wanted to wait until after the writers strike to allow for more rewrites. Universal threatened to sue the superstar for violating a pay-or-play deal, unless an appropriate replacement could be found.
“Basically, Brad and I sort of realized we were trying to make different films,” says Macdonald, who won an Oscar for his documentary “One Day in September,” about the Munich Olympic massacre, before directing 2006’s “The Last King of Scotland”
The character of McAffrey “has to be somewhat inadequate-seeming,” he adds. “He has to admire and look up to his friend and feel his friend has achieved what he hasn’t. Imagining Brad Pitt in that role was very hard.
“That’s why it didn’t work out, why we couldn’t quite make it fit. It wasn’t organic. So when Russell came in, he could fit that.”
Indeed, a portly Crowe appears in the film – a character choice that might be spot-on for depicting a slovenly journalist, but not always the way movie fans like to see a leading man.
Asked about his star’s unexpected girth, Macdonald says diplomatically: “It fits the part. The idea is that the character is somebody who’s gone to seed. The choices (Russell) made, they fit with that.
“It wasn’t exactly what myself and the studio imagined. In that case, it worked. One of the good things about Russell, he’s an actor with no vanity.”
But he’s also an actor who takes great pride in what he puts up on screen, and, according to Macdonald, working with him isn’t always the easiest experience.
“Russell is highly opinionated,” the director says. “He is very smart, and he has his own ideas a lot of the time about how his character should be. Sometimes that would be great.”
He gives the example of Crowe deciding his character should always wear a pink breast cancer armband, in honor of his mother who died young of the disease and left him unable to connect emotionally.
“It’s collaboration with Russell,” Macdonald says. “He’s not the kind of actor where you can say, ‘Do it again, but turn your head 3 degrees to the left,’ like you’re a photographer. He has ideas about how he’s going to do it, and it’s hard sometimes to get him off that. He can be tough.”
When Norton left, Affleck came in to play the politician and did his share of hands-on research, visiting the offices of Congressmen Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Illinois Democrat Rahm Emmanuel, now President Barack Obama’s chief of staff (and brother of Hollywood talent agent Ari Emmanuel, whose Endeavor represents Affleck).
That said, Affleck carefully points out that his troubled politician isn’t based on any one figure.
Everything was a bit smaller than he expected, says Affleck, including the offices.
“You have this idea, here are the halls of power and you’re going to walk in and there’s going to be, like, trumpets, or horns are going to blow,” he says. “None of them rival the offices of the great American CEOs with $2,000 trash cans.”
Affleck admits he was wary about playing a politician because of his history for being politically outspoken.
“There is some baggage I carry,” he says. “Playing a political character, I was afraid there would be some carry-over. People wouldn’t be able to see the character.”
Although he once mused about going into politics, that infatuation apparently has passed – for now.
“It’s something that seems much less appealing to me now the more I’m exposed to it,” Affleck says. “Even going around with all these congressman, it truly is full-time fundraising, with a little bit of politics thrown in. A lot of it is ugly, tawdry work. Maybe I’m not selfless enough.”
As for the journalistic side, even Affleck, who saw the worst of tabloid journalism during his days dating Jennifer Lopez, recognizes the value of traditional newsgathering organizations devoted to public service.
“It’s the horse and buggy thing,” he says. “Newspapers are the horse and buggy, and they’re now making cars.
“But I think the bigger danger is letting go of the horses and buggy entirely while not making sure we keep from them the things that were valuable to this culture – the history of excellence in journalism.”
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