Ed Driscoll

Then: Rosalind Russell. Now: Russell Crowe

While “modern”, “progressive” Hollywood sees itself on the cutting edge, it’s actually remarkably nostalgic, as Mark Steyn brilliantly noted in 2005, when he wrote:

Hollywood prefers to make “controversial” films about controversies that are settled, rousing itself to fight battles long won. Go back to USA Today’s approving list of Hollywood’s willingness to “broach the tough issues”: “Brokeback and Capote for their portrayal of gay characters; Crash for its examination of racial tension . . .” That might have been “bold” “courageous” movie-making half-a-century ago. Ever seen the Dirk Bogarde film Victim? He plays a respectable married barrister whose latest case threatens to expose his homosexuality. That was 1961, when homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom and Bogarde was the British movie industry’s matinee idol and every schoolgirl’s pinup: That’s brave. Doing it at a time when your typical conservative politician gets denounced as “homophobic” because he’s only in favor of civil unions is just an exercise in moral self-congratulation. And, unlike the media, most of the American people are savvy enough to conclude that by definition that doesn’t require their participation.

The newspaper world is also looking in the rearview mirror these days, including investor Sam Zell, who admits, “I Made A Mistake” buying the Chicago Tribune. And as we’ve all just witnessed, the legacy media almost universally botched the big story of the past week because they simply lack the reporting tools and the empathy to cover a decentralized libertarian story from the heartland, rather than the closed top-down world of government.

That’s the real world backdrop for the new Hollywood film State of Play, starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck.

Noting that “State of Play romanticizes the glory days of the dying press,” Patrol magazine makes the film sound like — if we’re lucky! — the last remake of the template that drove The Front Page, the 1929 Ben Hecht play, which is probably best known by the movie version made in 1940 with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and titled His Girl Friday, all the way up to All The President’s Men, the Lou Grant TV series, and Michael Keaton’s The Paper from 1994:

State of Play’s blatant, pervasive moralizing about “real news” will certainly be the talk of the town for the next week or so, but, after an initial wave of emotion for a disappearing profession that I will probably never get to really experience, it failed to convince me that the sinking city newspaper is something we should mourn. Della’s bringing-it-all-home platitude (“I figured when people read a story like this, they should get some ink on their fingers”) is, when you dissolve the sucrose, so vapid that it’s in no danger of ever being uttered by a real person. McAffrey’s digs at the online staff—“I figured we should get a few facts into the mix”—echo the denial of aging reporters everywhere, but we get the distinct impression that such rantings are the movie’s editorial position.

At every step, this movie takes the easy route by glamorizing the old; the really courageous journalism movie will be the one that puts this story’s wrenching level of excitement into a setting that’s true to the times. A realistic, non-sentimental take on the state of journalism could only have made State of Play more wonderfully intense, but who’s cheap enough to begrudge newspapers one last cinematic hurrah?

Meanwhile, as for those folks that have do so much to open up the once closed-end world of news, as  Christian Toto writes in his review of the film at Pajamas, “A more relevant movie would have shown the power of the blogosphere, letting McAdams release the story to the public post by post. Instead, State of Play only introduces bloggers so it can compare them to bloodsuckers.”

Of course, it seems understandable that movies, perhaps the last mass communications medium remaining, waxes nostalgic for an era when newspapers were a mass industry as well. Life was simpler when information — and entertainment — was hermetically sealed, and controlled by a small elite.