Essays

Why Newspaper Critics are Apologizing for ‘State of Play’

For all intents and purposes, this film is getting a lot of positive reviews that, upon reading, aren’t really positive at all. Why would a film that champions newspaper reporting get such praise from newspaper-based critics?
By  · Published on April 17th, 2009

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:

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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