Review: 'State of Play'

A hard-driving journalist hits up against Washington's power players in this political thriller.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Russell Crowe, right, and Ben Affleck in "State of Play," a new political thriller from Universal Pictures.
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"State of Play," the new Washington political thriller set in the world of journalism and starring Russell Crowe as a crusading reporter, began its life in 2003 as an acclaimed six-part BBC miniseries. The American redo is decidedly different. For starters, say goodbye to sleazy Fleet Street and let's hear it for the Washington Globe – a stand-in for the Post. Not since "All the President's Men" has a movie celebrated with such brio the ink-stained wretches who compose our Fourth Estate. And, yes, you heard me right – ink. "State of Play" is fixed firmly in the firmament of print journalism.

Crowe's Cal McAffrey lives alone in a dank apartment. His piled-high cubicle at work is festooned with yellowing clippings. His hair is stringy and unkempt and his gut has seen too many cheeseburgers. In movie shorthand, the message is clear: Here is an honest man.

When an aide to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) falls mysteriously to her death on subway tracks, it soon develops that the aide and the married politico were having an affair. To complicate matters, Cal and Stephen are best friends from college despite a falling out over the little matter of Cal's amatory imprudence with Stephen's wife (Robin Wright Penn) years before.

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Although it involves him in a bit of ethical line-crossing, Cal advises Stephen on how to manhandle the media frenzy. His finely honed reporter's instincts also intuit a larger scandal lurking in the shadows. The shadows include, naturally, one of those scary underground parking garages. I half expected Deep Throat to emerge from the murk.

Because of his personal contacts, Cal's editor, played by Helen Mirren in full flintiness, leans on him for scoops to feed the maw of her new corporate bosses who (can you believe it?) care less for accuracy than for paid circulation. Working in uneasy tandem with Cal is the paper's rookie blogger Della (Rachel McAdams), who initially is treated by Cal with the disdain appropriate to her class.

The class system, by the way, which was integral to the BBC series, is transmogrified in "State of Play." Instead of being about money and breeding, it's about – well, about ink versus digital.

With all the to-do about who the true-blue journalists are, and who is/was/will be sleeping with whom, the film's thriller aspects often get short shrift. But unlike, say, "Duplicity," the machinations here parse. Director Kevin Macdonald and his screenwriters (including "Duplicity" writer-director Tony Gilroy) even try for some topicality. Stephen, for example, is investigating a big bad military contractor that's like a cross between Blackwater and Halliburton.

Stephen's congressional colleague, a platitudinous phony played by Jeff Daniels, has just the right dollop of smarm. And that dollop goes double for a Washington public relations crumbum, played ineffably well by Jason Bateman, who is pressured by Cal to unload a few confidential bombshells.

Wading through all this muck in pursuit of the truth is Cal, who may be unwashed but is never dirty. He is the journalistic equivalent of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and all those other gumshoes who cracked wise in Sin City and got the job done.

Cal's grubby nobility has a special resonance. Back in 2003, the newspaper business, not to mention the global economy, was not yet in dire straits (although storm clouds definitely were on the horizon). "State of Play," by contrast, has been birthed into a very different place. The rough-and-tumble world of journalism on display, which culminates in an extended shot of the presses running with a front page exposé, seems almost antediluvian now. "State of Play" is far from a great movie, but it's sentimental in all the right ways. It's a tribute not only to the hallowed newspaper movie genre but to newspapers themselves. It's a last hurrah. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for some violence, language including sexual references, and brief drug content.)

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