Based on the BBC miniseries of the same name, State of Play is as much an elegiac swan song to print journalism as it is a gripping political thriller. But State of Play is more than just a paean or whodunit; it is really about moral compromises. The story — scripted by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), Matthew Carnahan (Lions for Lambs) and Billy Ray (Breach) — follows overweight, slovenly but dogged Washington Globe investigative reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) as he discovers that a string of seemingly unrelated murders are all connected.
Worse, the unfolding case embroils his old college pal, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), in a sex-and-murder scandal that threatens to extinguish his once-promising political career. Is Collins the killer of his staff member and mistress Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), or is PointCorp. — the private military company that Collins has been investigating in televised congressional hearings — really behind it? The closer that Cal and his partner, blogger and aspiring “serious” journalist Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), get to finding out the truth behind Sonia’s slaying the more dangerous it gets for them and their already imperiled newspaper as cops, power brokers, spin doctors and soldiers of fortune all come gunning for them.
Every character in State of Play is compromised to varying degrees: Cal is too close to Stephen to understand how much he’s blurred the lines between media and politics, and his friendship with Stephen’s wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn) may also be closer than it seems; Collins’ moral shortcomings are obvious from the plot synopsis, with his idealism being stronger than his integrity; Della comes from a new breed of reporter (“bloodsuckers and bloggers,” as the film calls them) who are more important in being “first!” than in being good at what they do; and Globe Editor in Chief Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) seems to be losing the battle between balancing her journalistic principles with the commercial necessities of keeping her paper’s owners happy. No one comes off looking too heroic or clean in State of Play, a gutsy move on the part of a major studio production to keep it real.
The cast is excellent across the board. Crowe owns the movie as the slobby but sly reporter who relies on old-fashioned tools such as notepads, door-to-door interviews and schmoozing all the right people (mostly cops) who can supply him with information. This could be the movie that makes audiences fall in love with Crowe again after a spell of flops and bad publicity. Affleck gives his best performance in years (if not ever) as Collins, although the nearly unanimous opinion among those who have seen the film is that it’s simply unbelievable to buy fortysomething Crowe and thirtysomething Affleck as former college roommates. One line change (e.g., Cal worked on Stephen’s campaign or was his T.A. in college or grad school) could have dispelled that entirely justifiable criticism. It also doesn’t help that Penn is closer to Crowe’s age than Affleck’s (all three characters knew each other in college). Penn plays Anne’s wounded pride well in a disappointingly small role.
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