Time to pronounce the death of the newspaper ... movie
That’s all she wrote for ‘newspaper movies’, with the fruitful subgenre to breathe its last once the Russell Crowe thriller State of Play slips this week from Australia cinemas.
No longer will Hollywood stars loosen their ties and roll up their sleeves as scoop-hungry newspaper reporters, no more will veteran character actors bring knowing splashes of avuncular charm to the stock role of the grizzled editor. No longer will the movie news be broken in print.
State of Play, with Crowe as a Washington journalist chasing a far-reaching Capitol conspiracy, marks the end of an era simply because 21st century audiences assume, correctly or not, that news now happens online.
By the time it takes to write, finance and shoot another contemporary ‘newspaper movie’, the growth of the online news audience will have further eaten into print’s readership and rendered the resulting flick a quaint throwback.
On July 1 News Limited boss John Hartigan made a speech to the National Press Club on the future of newspapers and online news, where he said coverage of the Victorian bushfires sold an extra 500,000 papers and doubled web traffic.
Hartigan’s point was that interesting stories told well can draw readers across both platforms, but the proportion of the spikes show which way the wind is blowing.
That’s not to say print media’s now on the same Hollywood blacklist as black-on-white kissing (notice how Will Smith only ever puckers up to his black, Latina and Asian co-stars?), but if my company supplied prop copies of USA Today to moviemakers, I’d be looking to diversify.
Print will linger in the background - Katherine Heigl can still play a small town reporter trying to crack the network TV big time and there’s always work for Reese Witherspoon in the offices of the glossy fashion mags - but the days of newspaper journalism actually factoring into a Hollywood plot are over.
Wisely, the makers of State of Play, which is adapted from a cracking 2003 BBC mini-series, wove the emergence of online news into their script, which marks the film as something of baton-pass between the analog ink-stains of All The President’s Men and the crisp new movie world of digital newsbreaking.
Crowe now gets a perky blogger sidekick (played by Rachel McAdams), who’s oblivious to the ways of ‘the real world’ because she’s been stuck behind a computer while he’s been out pounding the beat.
But stifle your groans – by the end of the film, the perhaps too-worldly Crowe finds himself ethically compromised over the story while the younger McAdams character maintains her idealistic stance.
The ‘20s-set Jack Lemmon / Walter Matthau newspaper romp The Front Page opened with a glorious title montage of papers being printed under the old hot metal process.
Jaunty jazz plays on the soundtrack as lines of metal type are clapped into place on wooden racks and black-visored artisans perform their daily miracle with casual aplomb.
State of Play ends with a matching sequence as the paper bearing Crowe’s hot story is run through a modern press. This time though, there’s no music and the tone is almost funereal.
At the close, the papers are bound and loaded on to a truck, which pulls out of shot looking rather like a lame horse about to be led up to the top paddock for the last time. Cut to black.
Anyone with news.com.au as their homepage would be baffled at the logistical hoops a paper jumps through to get on a newsagent’s shelf.
A question out of all this is how long do newspapers themselves have to go before they join the ranks of the payphone and the horse-drawn carriage as symbols of a bygone age?
Will a folded up newspaper one day become movie shorthand that a film is set in the 20th century?
The prophets of science fiction (they’re prophets all right: Alfred Bester was talking retina scans in his 1956 winner The Stars My Destination) have had fingers on the faltering pulse of newspapers for decades.
I’ve yet to see a working hoverboard, a commercial trip to the moon or a robot butler with a painted-on bowtie, but the sci-fi cliché of a future where news is delivered on video screens crowded with windows of information is looking right on the money.
Apart from its peculiar place in history, State of Play is a satisfying yarn that will play great on DVD. I wish I’d seen it sooner, mostly because I’m often hit up for advice on good movies to check out and it’s always nice to have something to champion.
Right now I’m telling everyone about Sam Raimi’s new shocker Drag Me To Hell, a near-perfect film – it does what it sets out to do, plays by its own rules and delivers the goods.
The days of newsmen on film might be numbered, but horror movies will last longer than cockroaches.
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