If it is indeed true that print journalism as we now know it is on its death-bed, then "State of Play" is an excellent eulogy, an intelligent, tense political thriller that thrusts the position of Investigative Reporter back into the realm of respectability.
A formidable cast of Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren, and Jason Bateman has taken this adaptation of the BBC mini-series, Americanized it, and under the direction of Kevin Macdonald, of "The Last King of Scotland" fame, given us a gripping, suspenseful film. It's all about murky morals, questionable ethics, and "corporation above the individual" mentality; and as in the real world, the answers aren't as cut-and-dried as you would like them to be.
Crowe has another role that seems tailor-made for him as Cal McAffrey; a hard-nosed, old-school reporter who enjoys sloppily living life hard, but becomes a pit-bull when he's on the trail of a story. Working on an investigation into what appears to be a professional hit on a low-life addict and an innocent by-stander, McAffrey's attention is diverted as news comes to him of the death of the research assistant of his best friend, a picture perfect rising star Congressman named Stephen Collins (Affleck).
The tabloids (both print and electronic) quickly jump into the scandal, speculating about Collins having an affair with the young woman, immediately calling her death a suicide. McAffrey, perhaps too eager to help his friend, gives Collins pointers on how to start spinning the story in his favor. Pre-disposed to believing in him, McAffrey begins a much deeper investigation with the assistance of an eager blogger also employed by his paper, Della Frye (McAdams). In the course of their research, they run into corporate corruption, government conspiracies, and danger from the bad-guys.
The script from Tony Gilroy ("Duplicity"), Billy Ray ("Breach"), and Matthew Michael Carnahan ("The Kingdom") continually keeps you guessing, but unlike Gilroy's snarky Clive Owen/Julia Roberts "Romantic Thriller" from earlier this year, "State of Play" never spins completely out of control. If you pay attention, you won't get confused or bored; which is the perfect balance in a thriller. Even though the ending still seemed just a bit too convenient, the script avoided the two biggest pitfalls of a thriller: Making a 180 degree twist at the end just for the sake of being cute, or by having every twist completely telegraphed.
I'll even forgive them for making Russell Crowe's character a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan (called "Yinzer" by a co-worker...whom I'm assuming was a Browns fan). This could be Crowe's best role since "Cinderella Man", and he is totally believable as a rumpled slob of a confirmed bachelor, but still a man whose writing and investigative abilities are envied and respected by all.
Ben Affleck continues on his path to redemption following various tabloid level escapades that have dogged his career. In fact, those events make him the perfect Collins; a man perceived by the public as having too much, too soon, and in need of a fall for no other reason than their jealousy. Affleck does a good job in making Collins a sympathetic scoundrel, getting into the reasons behind his mistakes and frailties.
McAdams finally takes what I perceive as a long delayed voyage into the realm of serious acting...even though at times she still seems to be more window-dressing than anything else. She does, however, get a few good scenes to show off something other than her attractiveness. Overall, the chemistry between her and Crowe is excellent. Helen Mirren and Robin Wright Penn contribute in the way we would expect from two such fine actresses in limited roles; Mirren as the hard-bitten chief editor of the Washington Globe (read; The Washington Post), and Wright Penn as Affleck's long suffering wife. But for the best supporting character, look later on for a wonderful performance from Jason Bateman as a sleazy P.R. man who holds the keys to unlocking the mystery.
As I think about this movie, and how much I enjoyed it in spite of the ending being a little too tidy, I realize that this was all about characters, and the chosen actors being able to pull them off. As this film was originally conceived, Brad Pitt was to have played McAffrey, with Edward Norton playing the role of the Congressman. No offense to two great actors, but that would have just totally fallen flat. Pitt is still too much of a Pretty Boy to give McAffrey the sloppy, disaffected demeanor he needed. On the opposite end, Norton's edginess couldn't have worked as well as Affleck perceived smarminess did in showing what is now considered the stereotypical slick politician.
Under the steady hand of MacDonald, "State of Play" takes us on a trip into a land that seems way too familiar to us now-a-days; looking at representatives, corporations, and a press that we used to trust, but now do not. It's a shame that the current state of journalism is perceived as nothing more than biased sensationalism promoting the agenda of one side or the other. This won't bring back the viewpoint of Woodward and Bernstein level hero worship of journalists, but it definitely will entertain you.
My Rating - Frank Ryan (3 footballs).
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