State of Play is a fractured love letter to a dying newspaper industry, Hollywood’s newest assault on Blackwater, and, as if it were needed, more proof that Ben Affleck can’t act.
The film, based on a BBC miniseries, follows a print scribe throwback named Cal (Russell Crowe) investigating a double shooting in D.C. The crime turns out to be connected to a much juicier story.
An aide to a popular congressman (Affleck) just committed suicide, and the congressman’s teary public appearance to announce her death tips off the press that he was having an affair with her.
Could that affair be tied to the congressman’s investigation of a Blackwater-style outfit?
Turns out Cal and the congressman are old pals — college roommates to be precise. Normally, that would mean a major conflict of interest should Cal decide to report on the story. But that’s just one of the logical chasms in this very tall but rigorously entertaining tale.
Cal is forced to cover the unfolding story with his paper’s blog reporter (Rachel McAdams). He’s old school. She’s cutting edge … except she doesn’t really behave like any blogger you’ve ever met. McAdams exists to squeeze a pretty face onto the movie poster and mock online journalism.
A more relevant movie would have shown the power of the blogosphere, letting McAdams release the story to the public post by post. Instead, State of Play only introduces bloggers so it can compare them to bloodsuckers.
Yes, the film is just as protective of the newspaper industry as every other editor who clings to the way things have always been done for decades. But give it points for up-to-the-moment relevancy. Too bad the film couldn’t throw in a tea-bagging gag.
Affleck’s congressman was investigating the private military company at the time of his aide’s death. But now he’s not in a position to do so much as make weak apologies to his wife (Robin Wright Penn).
Apparently, Blackwater is the go-to villain du jour — Fox’s 24 is currently pinning the latest terrorist threat on a Blackwater stand-in named Starkwood, and the CBS drama Jericho also used the company for similar story requirements. Expect more films to follow their lead.
Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) does more than keep this thriller humming. He makes exceptional use of the D.C. settings, transforming the nation’s capital into the second most colorful character in the film.
Crowe’s Cal makes for a wonderful stand-in for the mainstream press. He’s hopelessly biased — in this case for his old college chum — and oblivious to those who call him on it. He’s a dinosaur who thinks he can still lumber around town, alternately shaking down and kissing up to sources like he’s done for ages.
But Crowe is such a fine actor, an Oscar winner who can look disheveled better than anyone this side of Columbo, that such qualms fade whenever he’s on screen.
Crowe can’t be blamed for the casting missteps here. Who thought Affleck and Crowe could play contemporaries? It’s a key component of the film, and their scenes together simply don’t work as intended. Another casting snafu makes matters worse — Wright Penn popping up as Affleck’s wife.
What dashing congressman marries a cougar in this day and age?
Helen Mirren adds some class to the proceedings as Cal’s editor, trotting out a thick British accent to deliver a few stinging rebukes. Jason Bateman is far better served by his juicy cameo as a sleazy PR agent.
There’s a whiff of corporate conspiracy behind the newspaper in question — the fictitious Washington Globe — but the subplot does little more than spike the Blackwater narrative.
State of Play is the kind of by-the-book feature in which every hunch the main characters have turns out to be prophetic. The story, credited to three writers (including talented scribes Billy Ray and Tony Gilroy), doesn’t leave enough time for any missteps, especially since it has to squeeze in one utterly implausible final twist.
The film’s credits roll over footage of a newspaper press churning out tomorrow’s edition. It’s meant as a quiet tribute to a medium on the endangered list. Yet the film itself shows reporters and editors to be arrogant and out of touch, a community so invested in getting a scoop that it doesn’t care who gets hurt along the way.
That’s hardly breaking news, but State of Play makes even obvious storylines pop off the screen.