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May 10, 2009

Pursuit of the truth isn’t pretty

By Sister Helena Burns, FSP


The new suspense movie “State of Play” is an ode to old-fashioned journalism, boasting a stellar international cast that doesn’t disappoint: Russell Crowe (Aussie), Rachel McAdams (Canuck), Ben Affleck (Yankee) and Helen Mirren (Brit). (Jason Bateman is just outstanding in his small, sole comic relief role as an unscrupulous, two-bit middleman involved in a game that’s way over his head.)

The film is self-consciously reminiscent of “All the President’s Men,” and even utilizes the Watergate building. Although in the beginning it looks like newspaper journalism is going to be pitted against new media journalism, the two join forces to get the story the only way it can be got — by pounding the pavement, taking personal risks and talking to sources. Where the story eventually shows up is secondary to the actual content.

Above all, “State of Play” is humane. It’s about interweaving relationships and loyalties vis-à-vis Washington power and war profiteering. When things get too cold and rough and ugly, one character will always exhibit a piece of humanity that reminds everyone why we do any of what we do, and what the ultimate standards are: marriage, friendship, love of country, the truth. Everyone is tempted to sell out in some way, including the head of the “Washington Globe” newspaper (Helen Mirren).

Russell Crowe’s veteran journalist manifests the constant conflict of interest that plagues every journalist in their efforts to be objective and truthful. They, too, are humans with their own flaws, alliances, dalliances, and ulterior motives as they struggle to perform for the public the job and service they love and are driven to do.

“State of Play” made me worry even more about something I’ve been worrying a lot about lately: Our desperate need for trained, paid, accountable journalists who are employed by an impartial party to uncover stories, goings- on, potential and actual shenanigans at the local, state and federal level.

This has been our system for quite some time, and it has worked rather well (albeit that newspapers in general are left-leaning — but everyone knows that). Fabricate a story? Do something unethical? Get paid off? Promote a product? Lose your job. It doesn’t so much matter whether news is in print or online. A free (not under government coercion, and serious) press is essential in a democracy.

The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-3, adults.

Burns, who ministers in Chicago, has a philosophy/theology degree from St. John’s University, N.Y., and studied screenwriting at the University of California- Los Angeles.