"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, and it does capture 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.
Affleck, who plays an ambitious up-and-coming politician, and Macdonald tend to banter jocularly with talking about the seismic shifts in the media landscape, but they didn't make the film to dance on the grave of any institution. This is the kind of movie where the closing shot is a loving pan to 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."
Over a lunch, on a windy day, at the completely empty and barren poolside of the Four Seasons Hotel, Affleck and Macdonald -- who both speak with exuberance and authority about what they see as the responsibilities and shortcomings of news-gathering organizations -- resemble the dynamic between the film's main characters: Crowe's disheveled but tenacious reporter, Cal McAffrey, and Affleck's shiny bright congressman, Stephen Collins -- old college pals who have grown apart while working for the public trust (albeit in very different capacities) in the nation's capital.
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," is the rumpled one with shaggy hair and a journalist's zeal for blunt truth telling, tempered by his understanding of the Hollywood publicity machine. (He comes from a prominent filmmaking clan, both as the grandson of writer-director Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell's collaborator on "The Red Shoes," and brother of prolific U.K. producer Andrew Macdonald.)
Looking trim in a peacoat, Affleck gives off an air of radiant health and tends to undercut his director's more earnest musings with good-natured jokes.
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 murder for his newspaper, Crowe's journalist 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 buddy the congressman.
Actors bow out
Making matters even more complicated, Crowe's character has had an affair with the congressman's wife, played by Robin Wright Penn. In a departure -- and updating from the miniseries (see story this page) -- 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 was initially cast as the conflicted but dogged newsman, and even made a dash- ing research visit to the Washington Post.
"It was the biggest thing that ever happened there," Macdonald says wryly.
"The biggest thing that happened at the Washington Post was that Brad Pitt went through?" Affleck asks. "Wow."
Macdonald is circumspect about what happened to Pitt, who dropped out a week before shooting was to commence in November 2007, which 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 push 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.