Under Hollywood's microscope

For some insane reason, Hollywood has always taken an interest in what I do for a living.

Sometimes the vampires who dwell in the Valley of Darkness get the details right. Other times, well, it is the land of fantasy and make-believe.

These thoughts drifted in and out of my head while watching "State of Play" the other night. The fact that my own reverie was impinging on the plot of a thriller might not bode well for the film, but I am pleased to report the movie turned out quite well despite a second-hour lag and a serious narrative flaw at the end.

"State of Play" tells the story of a surly, street-level reporter, played well, as always, by Russell Crowe. Crowe works for a big Washington, D.C., paper and has made his name chugging out complex investigative pieces that uncover government malfeasance.

How he has managed to avoid the layoffs that surely have decimated his newsroom is anyone's guess, but that's our hero — fair and simple in his moral code. The voice of the little guy in a town of big suits, big egos and little oversight.

But how well does "State of Play" capture the life of a journalist? Of course, I don't work for a major metro paper, but I feel after more than three years before the mast I do have at least some valuable impressions on this low business, to use Hunter S. Thompson's description.

First, the film successfully nails the look of a journalist and his environment. Crowe has gained weight for the role and spends most of his screen time disheveled and unshaven. His shoulders hunch from hours spent at the computer and he always seems near the end of a three-day bender. His desk is a chaos of pizza boxes, moldy papers and empty coffee cups. The male journalist laid bare.

As I look around at the men of the Mail Tribune I realize we are ugly people. Let's start with the fashion holocaust played out daily. If I see another plaid, button-up shirt over beige khaki pants and tennis shoes it will be far too soon. I say this wearing brown dress pants and a scruffed pair of Saucony shoes. I, too, share in this disaster.

The sole exception is Editorial Page Editor Gary Nelson. Now that's a styling dude whose not afraid to bust out the cool shirt and tie with a sweet pair of cowboy boots when he means business.

I will refrain from leveling such criticism at the Mail Tribune female species. I value my life far too much.

The newsroom set displayed in "State of Play" is right on. Some of the reporters shown seem to lead neat and orderly lives, though Crowe's desk is an environmental hazard zone.

For the most part Mail Tribune desks are relatively clutter free, though three slackers seem to take pride in the filth of their surroundings. I call them the Axis of Trash.

If the world were a fair place, my colleagues Mark Freeman, Greg Stiles and Bill Kettler would be taken to task by Medford officials for operating an illegal landfill within city boundaries. However, we don't reside in a fair world. We have this one.

Where "State of Play" gets it mostly wrong is exploring the day-to-day grind of the newspaper. I'm sure several other professions — police, teachers, doctors, politicians — mined for entertainment purposes share this criticism.

If I ever land a story that takes me to the tough streets of Medford, where I duck gunfire from a hitman trying to kill me for my knowledge and end up with a hottie lobbyist who manages to see past my 5 o'clock shadow and frayed jeans to my chewy chocolate core, I'll retire a happy man.

Most of the job is spent in surreal, often uncomfortable conversations with people you barely know who probably don't want to talk and are hyper-aware of the exploitative relationship you're trying to develop.

It would be a lot easier if as in "State of Play" I could lie to sources to get them to confess, illegally tape witnesses and use this as leverage to get my way and blackmail politicians to get something on the record.

Some films manage to pry into the too-often closed world of newspaper journalism. "All the President's Men" shows a job in which information is slowly gathered in bits and pieces and how it usually doesn't make sense. If anything, "All the President's Men" is too faithful to reality because the film's narrative momentum is hampered by scenes where Robert Redford mumbles into a phone and scribbles weird little sentences on scraps of paper.

"Shattered Glass," a true story, shows the rise and fall of The New Republic's Stephen Glass, a disgraced reporter caught making up entire features for the magazine.

I believe frauds such as Glass are the exception in newsrooms across America. Nevertheless, "Shattered Glass" shows journalism at its tedious best as practiced by hard-working professionals. My favorite scene is the budget meeting, where reporters and editors sit in a circle discussing what they have ready for the next day's paper.

Frankly, it's not that exciting to hear your city reporter drone on about parking structure renovation, but it's the news and people deserve to know.

Anyone out there have a job that has been featured on the big screen or the telly? If so, I'd like to hear some of your observations now that you've endured mine.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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