Friday, November 13, 2009

State of Play -- playing our friends

Director: Kevin Macdonald, 2009.

The new movie from MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) makes us watch and think to the very end even while taking us on a taut and tense thrill ride. That should be no surprise given that Tony Gilroy wrote the screenplay. Better known for his writing on the Bourne trilogy, Gilroy also wrote and directed Duplicity, itself a fine film.

As the film opens a petty thief is being chased through the backstreets of Washington DC until he is coldly executed in a dark alley. Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey chases down the facts with a cynicism and efficiency that can only come from long years on the beat.

Meanwhile, a Congressman's young assistant falls to her death on the tracks of the DC subway, and rookie reporter Delia Frye is assigned to this news event. Delia is bright and energetic. More than this, she is the on-line reporter, a blogger.

It is not until a connection emerges between these two apparently unrelated deaths that McAffrey and Frye start to work together. When they do, the contrast between old school and new school comes sharply into focus. We see the inner workings of the newspaper, and we also see the future of the industry.

McAffrey represents newspapers of the past. Writing with pen, publishing in print, he lives for the investigation. He wants to see his stories in hard copy. Reporters produce newsprint. Frye, on the other hand, is the new wave of the journalistic future. She blogs, she produces digital copy. More and more newspapers are finding it difficult to turn a profit. News is migrating to on-line, on all-the-time options. With internet in the pocket of paying customers in the form of smart phones and iPods, why wait for today's news to show up in print as tomorrow's headlines? Why not read all about it now, on the internet? Who can wait 12 hours for their news? This is a now generation.

Can the two types coexist? Certainly, in this movie the two main characters coexist in a mutually beneficial relationship that proves ultimately successful. Some, perhaps many, still find the tactile feeling of holding a newspaper very satisfying. I personally prefer to read a paper version of "The Oregonian" while I eat my morning cereal, rather than reading the same story on my iTouch. There may come a time when electronic readers become larger, lighter and brighter, and if this happens newsprint may then become obsolete. But for now, as in this movie, there is room for both.

One of the strengths of State of Play is its cast. Russell Crowe, once again looking dumpy and homely as he did in Body of Lies, plays Cal McAffrey as a wisecracking but jaded loner. Rachel McAdams is his naive but fresh foil as Frye. Helen Mirren shows up as their editor, a hard-as-nails deadline pusher who lets herself be manipulated by McAffrey. Ben Afleck brings his A-game, perhaps his best performance in years, as Congressman Stephen Collins, and Robin Wright Penn (The Princess Bride) is his wife. And Jason Bateman has a small but critical part as a PR man.

As McAffrey and Frye begin working together, a major story appears to be taking shape. McAffrey's clues uncover a corporate cover-up that has huge implications. Collins, the congressman whose aide died, has much to lose, both politically and personally. With a number of insiders, informants and assassins, State of Play plays with the whole concept of friendship and exploitation.

There is a history between McAffrey and Collins. They were friends in college but became estranged, as many college room-mates do. In one emotional scene, Collins confronts McAffrey:
You're just seeking the truth. You're a truth seeker. You can't help it, that is just who you are. You're such a hypocrite. You're not interested in me. You come in here, it's all about you and you getting your story. I trusted you. You're my friend! You were supposed to be my friend anyway.
This begs the question, how far should using a friendship go before it becomes abuse? Is it fair to exploit a friend? The root of the answer to this question comes down to our motivation. In the film, McAffrey is clearly seeking the truth. But he is doing it because he smells a story, perhaps even a Pulitzer. He was not really interested in his friend. His friendship simply opened the door for him to garner more information. He was actually abusing a friendship that had faltered and festered. Though he let Collins sleep on his couch, his friendship was merely functional and self-serving. True friendship looks out for the other person. True friendship is about helping not hurting. True friendship expresses love (Prov. 17:17).

Moreover, the Bible has much to say about truth. It offers truth. It points us to the truth in Jesus (Jn. 14:6). Certainly we should be truth-seekers. But we should also be truth-speakers. What we do with the truth is as important as seeking and finding the truth.

How do we use the truth with our friends? In this context Paul, writer of many of the epistles in the New Testament, gave us the key truth in Eph. 4:15: "Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ." This verse addresses method and purpose. The purpose is to help others grow. It is to benefit rather than berate. Yet the method is critical. Truth alone can be cutting and cruel. But truth tempered with love can never be like this. If we speak the truth in love we will focus on what is said and how it will be heard. It will focus on how we can help. It will affirm our interest in our friend, and this interest will be genuine because we want to see the other reach his potential. There is no hypocrisy in truth spoken in love. It is no longer about me. It is all about the friend.

State of Play keeps us guessing until the very end. Twists and turns add to the tension. But ultimately it makes us reflect on how we deal with our friends, especially those we haven't seen in a while. Will we return trust with love-harnessed truth? Or will we focus on what we can get for ourselves from the relationship?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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