Page last updated at 14:55 GMT, Thursday, 23 April 2009 15:55 UK

The last roar of a dying beast?

Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams
Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams fight for the old values of journalism

By Clare Walmsley
Entertainment Reporter, BBC News

Director Kevin Macdonald does not want you to get the wrong idea about new film State of Play. You can watch it with your popcorn and you will be entertained .

"State of Play is a thriller, it's a mainstream film aimed at a wide audience. Journalists all want to talk about the journalism side but it risks making it sound like it's a documentary for BBC Four."

But he admits: "I'd like to see the film as a call to action."

A call to action to save newspaper journalism, which Macdonald sees as under threat from blogging and budget cuts.

Scotsman Macdonald says that, inspired by works like 1957 classic The Sweet Smell of Success, he's always wanted to make a film about journalism.

"You can have literate, witty, smart-alecky characters that it's hard to have in other films - they're anti-establishment, independent and slightly eccentric.

"But I subsequently thought this could be the last film about newspapers because they probably won't exist in five years time."

'Noble creature'

The film sees rumpled old school journalist Cal McAffrey, played by Russell Crowe, digging his way to the bottom of a government scandal.

He treads the streets for witness statements, pumps inside contacts for details and flat out refuses to give up on the story.

They don't mind one great bit of action, then incoherence, then action with no character continuity
Kevin Macdonald on cinemagoers

Along the way, the boozy and irascible Cal fends off his editor, played by Helen Mirren, who is under pressure for instant results from the media conglomerate which has taken over the paper.

She sees the answer in young blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) because "she's hungry, she's cheap and she churns out copy every hour".

She is teamed up with Cal who initiates her in the ways of a "real" journalist.

State of Play is based on the 2003 BBC television series of the same name but places more emphasis on the crisis in journalism.

TV and film versions finish with a montage of the papers rolling off the press but the film is less triumphal.

"What we're saying is this is a dying beast, a noble creature on its last legs, look at these old printing presses, look at the paper - it's all crumpled up. It's bitter sweet," Macdonald explains.

Ben Affleck as congressman Stephen Collins
Macdonald feels corruption will flourish without investigative journalism

But the director is clear that, despite the closing images, the film is not an exercise in nostalgia.

He quotes David Simon, ex-journalist and writer of TV series The Wire, which also bangs the drum for journalism's role in governmental accountability.

"David Simon says the next 10 years will be a golden age to be a corrupt politician in America and that's really what State of Play is about."

Macdonald says its crucial to "to have people who are outsiders, who are abrasive, who don't want to be inside with the people in power - they want to be difficult and niggling and poke a stick at them".

He could be describing himself.

'Holy grail'

Macdonald has a background in documentaries which started with a 1995 TV biography of his grandfather, the filmmaker Emeric Pressberger.

And he's still drawn to the factual. Oscar-winning film The Last King of Scotland was a thriller set in the regime of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams and Russell Crowe in State of Play
Editor Cameron Lynne looks for cheaper ways to get stories

"My instinct is to go to the real places or find the real world equivalent," says Macdonald.

With State of Play, he sought that realism through meticulous research at the Washington Post and by stuffing the film with context about declining paper sales and the cost of investigative journalism.

MacDonald may be concerned that cinemagoers are sometimes more drawn to fluffy light entertainment than such gritty realism. More Americans went to see Zac Efron vehicle, 17 Again, than State of Play in its opening week in the US.

"Cinema has become more and more sensationalist - it's become more like a theme park.

"People don't expect stories. They don't mind one great bit of action, then incoherence, then action with no character continuity."

But he remains optimistic this is "just a temporary blip and people will get bored with Fast and Furious".

And he's anxious State of Play doesn't go the way of the newspaper trade it portrays.

"I want a wide audience to see it - I'm not interested in tiny art house audience otherwise I wouldn't be making a studio movie.

"The aim for me is to make great entertainment that's also intelligent - that's the holy grail."

State of Play is released in the UK on Friday.

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