As State of Play began, I had an unexpected surge of wistfulness. After all, this film is about an intrepid newspaper reporter (Russell Crowe) investigating the suspicious death of a pretty young Capitol Hill staffer. But in this world of blogs and Twitter, aren’t movies where the hero is a reporter about to go the way of the dodo bird?
Happily, State of Play rather ingeniously sidesteps this reality by making sure that Crowe’s Cal McAffrey is constantly being reminded that he’s an endangered species. He’s forced to work with a rising star young blogger (Rachel McAdams), his tough publisher (Helen Mirren) is bemoaning a gimmicky corporate-fueled redesign, and he has to fend off accusations of irrelevance from his subjects.
“When it’s real news, it breaks through the gossip,” Cal insists (or something to that effect)—and I was surprised my colleagues at the screening didn’t give him a standing ovation.
Of course, State of Play isn’t really about the state of newspapers today, but it’s a nice little addition to the script (based on the acclaimed British mini series of the same name) which is essentially a good, old fashioned conspiracy thriller. Is the death of the staffer a cover-up? And who is covering their tracks—Cal’s old college roommate, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who has admitted to having an affair with her? Or the giant military contracting firm that Collins was trying to expose? And how does this all relate to the dead drug runner and the pizza delivery boy in a coma?
State of Play, which is directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) does almost everything right—it bristles with tension, insiderish details, and authority. With the exception of Ben Affleck, who is merely adequate, the acting is stellar. Jason Bateman has a scene stealing cameo as a slick lowlife who Cal and his colleagues question; Robin Wright Penn breaks your heart as Collins’ mortified wife who harbors unresolved feelings for Cal; and, of course, the leads—Crowe, McAdams, and Mirren—amount to a veritable dream team. You know the cast is good (or that quality roles are scarce these days?) when no less than Jeff Daniels shows up in a small but pivotal role as a Republican king maker.
Frankly, the only thing keeping this film from true excellence is the conspiracy itself, which comes to a slightly head-scratching conclusion. But State of Play is smart, gripping, and it stands up for newspapers. What’s not to like?