Saturday, April 25, 2009

"State of Play" vs. "All the President's Men"

There was a mini-debate last night in the lobby of the Grandin Theatre, where the six of us had just seen "State of Play," the newspaper thriller, set in D.C. If that sounds familiar, think "All the President's Men," to which this movie will inevitably be compared.

I asked the group for a comparison, based on entertainment value. My thought is that "State of Play" is far superior, but the vote was 1-5 on that one, with the five being torn between the movies and unable to determine that one is better. "They're too different," said one member of the posse. "One is fiction, the other's based on Watergate."

"Smith, you're crazy," said another, who generally says that to me, no matter the context.

"State of Play" is, loosely, about a newspaperman for a Washington Post knockoff (the Globe) chasing leads on a murder that spills over into a House of Representatives committee investigation--led by the reporter's old college roommate--of a Blackwater-type of para-military organization. Seems this organization has designs on taking over all foreign and domestic security functions (a real nightmare, if you're into nightmares). "All the President's Men," of course, was based on Bob Woodward's book about one of the biggest political scandals of the late 20th Century, resulting in the resignation of Richard Nixon. It didn't have an elicit sex component, which might have made the movie more entertaining, but, hey, we're dealing with old-line, pre-Christian Republicans here so we can't ask too much.

Both were written, directed and acted superbly. While "Presidents" had Jason Robards, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, "State," based on an old British TV series, features a slobby, plump Russell Crow as the reporter; my favorite actor Helen Mirren, as the executive editor; and Ben Affleck, solidly playing a congressman.

I always found "Presidents" to be a bit on the boring side because it depicted what the Watergate boys did without theatrics. That's honest storytelling, but not great movie-making, where entertainment is the goal. "State" stays right out there on the edge every minute, with armed evil lurking in the shadows. I don't know how accurate the depiction of the Blackwater faction is, but it's a chilling warning of what might be and that's good enough for me. It is hard news preachy and its reporters smarter than your average leather-burner. The reporters in "State" get away with withholding evidence from the police in a murder case (among other illegalities) that I'm not so sure would fly in real life, but, hey, it's a movie.

In any case, both movies are filled with the almost slavish belief that the only news worth reading in our society is contained in newspapers. "State" disses alternate news sources (one of its reporters starts as a blogger and winds up as a "real reporter"), but at the same time laments the economic reality of the compromises big news organizations are forced to make.

Ultimately, both are worth seeing. If you only get to see the post-movie, pre-credits Globe plate-making production in "State," it's worth the effort.

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