Why are newspaper critics apologizing for State of Play?

Currently, State of Play is tracking at 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, a stellar score for any film. Now, I’m used to being “wrong” when it comes to my opinion versus the bulk of other critics out there, but I’d like to leave my own opinion out of this for a bit (as much as an egomaniac can) to take a look at what appears like a much weirder phenomenon. A phenomenon of print critics not necessarily liking a movie, but still claiming that it’s good.

For those who haven’t seen the film (that’s been in theaters all of 20 hours), there is a major theme in the movie of print journalism being the bastion of truth-seeking over the naive, fact-apathetic world of blog-style journalism. Russell Crowe’s character Cal is the beat reporter we’ve seen in most films – sickly talented at getting answers, devoted to digging as deep as possible and getting every side of the story. He’s a hero for getting to the bottom of things even if it means holding up the printing press until late into the night. On the other hand, Rachel McAdams’s character Della is a writer for the internet edition of the same paper who acts more like a starry-eyed seventeen year old than most of the young, savvy political bloggers that exist in the real world.

Beyond that relationship, the movie focuses on a climax that involves getting all of the facts and creating a solid story that’s important enough for people “to have ink on their hands” when they read it. Because of that, there’s a deadline to work up against. For some, like me, that was frustratingly artificial – the newspaper is honest about its financial troubles in the movie while pointing out that the online edition is the money-maker, yet even while they are fighting to beat other newspapers to a major breaking story, they would rather let that business model hinge on whether the main reporter can get his story in by the time they need to crank up the press instead of letting the details come out overnight in the paper’s online edition.

Clearly, it’s a film that cheers on the successes of the printed medium (while ironically exploiting its massive faults to create dramatic tension) which is the only reason I can see that print critics would stab at the flaws of the movie while still claiming it’s really well done. I’m not saying that there aren’t online critics that like the film (there are), and I’m not saying that all print critics love it (many don’t). There isn’t a stark dividing line between the two groups as to who likes and dislikes the film, but unlike other films, there is an odd third category of critics who loved the movie while not seeming to like it at all. All of the members of this category just happen to write for newspapers.

All of these were listed as positive reviews by Rotten Tomatoes:

  • Shawn Levy of The Oregonian says that the film’s plot, “can tax the plausibility of the enterprise, particularly in the last act, when overreaching twist piles atop overreaching twist,” then claims that “Until State of Play slips into a small cascade of improbabilities near its end, it proves a thoroughly engaging and professional enterprise.” Despite a ridiculously implausible ending (which should be a main component of any solid thriller) he gives the film a B+ rating. Of course, it’s also notable that he frames his entire review around how fantastic the newspaper trade is.
  • Christopher Kelly from The Dallas Morning News rants about the film not having “the courage of its own cynical convictions,” for miscasting Affleck severely, and that the film only finally gets the tone right during the closing credits. Apparently, “the movie doesn’t quite work, but even when it’s misfiring it has an old-fashioned appeal.” So basically – it’s good even when it’s bad?
  • Carla Meyer of The Sacramento Bee admits to liking the film mostly for Russell Crowe (which is completely fair) instead of worrying about all of the politics and murder that surround his performance. She also claims that, “the ending betrays the audience’s trust.” Seriously. She makes a strong statement like that – that the ending of the film builds the audience up and then betrays them – then gives the film a good rating.
  • Kimberly Jones from The Austin Chronicle (go Austin) makes the statement that, “thematically, the forest gets a bit lost for the trees – there’s a fundamental, unaddressed irony in the film’s conclusion that I won’t spoil here – but there’s still an undeniable satisfaction to be had in an intelligently executed thriller.” After claiming the theme is confused, she gives it three stars and calls it “intelligently executed.”
  • Mick LaSalle from The San Francisco Chronicle feels the need to frame his review around an important factor of the film: “Any real conversation about State of Play has to start with the thing that most stands out about it, and that’s the ending – one of the most misbegotten and ill conceived in memory…I’ve been going to the movies since my mother took me to A Hard Day’s Night in 1964, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie fall so quickly from such heights as State of Play.” Apparently one of the worst endings he’s ever seen, ever, isn’t enough to sink the ship as he asks rhetorically if The Mona Lisa would be ruined if someone drew a mustache on it. Despite the obvious answer to that question being, “yes,” LaSalle defends the film as apparently he would the famous painting if it included an extra bit of lip hair. Of course, La Salle shows his hand a bit by saying, “the struggle of newspapers to survive informs the script, and there are wisecracks galore extolling print at the Internet’s expense. These are welcome…”
  • My favorite is Ann Hornaday from The Washington Post who makes no bones about what she loved best. After basically re-writing the press release synopsis for the film, she says: “The filmmakers seem less interested in its text than in its subtext, in this case the death rattle of Old Media. State of Play‘s final montage, a loving valentine to old-fashioned newspapering, plays like a sepia-toned anthropological documentary about a vanishing indigenous tribe. On behalf of a beleaguered profession, this ink-stained wretch couldn’t help but be touched. Thanks for caring, guys.” It appears as though, for Hornaday, the film’s focusing on making a statement was more important than the actual story or characters.

These aren’t the only examples, and I would urge you to read their full reviews for context, but it seems very confusing. On the one hand, it seems obvious that the ending bothered a lot of people but instead of owning up to how convoluted it was and how badly it injured the film as a whole, many print writers parsed words and rationalized it. In fact, there seems to be a lot of rationalization and forgiveness going on – if not flat out contradictions in terms like writing a wholly negative review then giving the flick three stars.

The reduced version of a lot of these reviews seems to be that the film is decent to good with a severely flawed ending that ruins the film but audiences should give it a shot anyway.

I have no explanation for why people are writing this way about the film other than its correlation to the print industry. If there’s another hypothesis out there, I’d be open to hearing it, but I can’t figure out for the life of me (beyond seeing this as a group of people touched by a bad film that champions their cause) why professional critics would parse words like this.

I’m not writing this to call anyone out or disrespect anyone. In fact, I like reading most of the writers I referenced – which is what makes it even more confusing for me. It’s like when commenters on my reviews call me out for ripping a film to shreds and only giving it a C- letter grade. It happens from time to time where we critics don’t communicate as well as we should, but I’ve never seen it as focused and widespread as this.

For all intents and purposes, this film is getting a lot of positive reviews that, upon reading, aren’t really positive at all. Although State of Play doesn’t really say anything new about the pluses and minuses of New Media versus Old, the conversation might be sparked again – the old guard arguing with the new about which medium is killing American culture more effectively. I’ve already weighed in on that topic, and it seems obvious that the film even understands the balance between print and the internet (while praising the former and mocking the latter), but the effect that it’s had on print critics is telling. I may be wrong about the cause, but for some reason, critics are more than willing to give this film’s flaws a pass.


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