Russell Crowe as Cal McAffrey
Ben Affleck as Stephen Collins
Rachel McAdams as Della Frye
Helen Mirren as Cameron Lynne
Robin Wright Penn as Anne Collins
Jason Bateman as Dominic Foy
Jeff Daniels as Rep. George Fergus
Michael Berresse as Robert Bingham
Harry Lennix as Det. Donald Bell
Josh Mostel as Pete
Michael Weston as Hank
Barry Shabaka Henley as Gene Stavitz
Viola Davis as Dr. Judith Franklin
David Harbour as PointCorp Insider
Sarah Lord as Mandi Brokaw
Directed by Kevin MacDonald
While this thriller’s inventive take on modern journalism tends to get bogged down in an over-abundance of characters and plot developments, it does produce enough twists by the end so that you never feel cheated by the outcome.
Washington reporter Cal McCaffrey (Russell Crowe) is investigating a seemingly inconsequential murder, but when he discovers that his old college roommate and now Congressman, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), has been having an affair with an aide who has also died under mysterious circumstances, Cal is forced to team with paper’s political blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) to find out how these two deaths may be connected to something far more nefarious.
Conspiracy thrillers are a dime a dozen these days and finding new twists to surprise those who love the genre can be difficult, especially in this case, where most of the central plot comes from the BBC mini-series of the same name. The attempt to transplant that London-based story into the hotbed of Washington, DC politics isn’t that difficult a task, and unlike previous attempts to Americanize British television shows, the movie isn’t a complete disaster and the transition is fairly transparent due to the skills of director Kevin MacDonald (“The Last King of Scotland”).
As the film opens, a simple purse-snatching leads to the death of the infiltrator and the shooting of an innocent witness, but before reporter Cal McCaffrey can get too far into his story, the aide of a congressman dies in a freak accident on the Metro, and it’s revealed that she was sleeping with her boss. By coincidence, that congressman, Stephen Collins, was also McCaffrey’s college roommate, and the reporter assigned to that story, blogger Della Frye, hopes McCaffrey can get some inside information from his friend. As the two reporters miserably help each other with their respective stories, it becomes clear that the deaths are somehow related, as those around them are targeted by those responsible.
Although by its nature, “State of Play” might feel somewhat convoluted and all over the place with the number of characters introduced in the first hour, what works in its favor is that it features the same dense storytelling as recent films like “The International” and “Duplicity” without being as inaccessible despite treading similar ground from a different perspective. It won’t take a genius to figure out the two seemingly separate stories are related to Congressman Collins’ investigation of a corporation involved with war profiteering, especially if you’ve seen the commercials that reveal that plot element. It’s the method in which this thriller tackles the corrupt corporations from the viewpoint of the newsdesk that keeps it somewhat fresh even if the execution is sometimes flawed.
The first time we see Crowe’s character on screen at the scene of the crime, he seems to be cut from the same cloth as Detective Ritchie Roberts from “American Gangster.” At first, you might even mistake him as a detective but it’s revealed that he’s a beat reporter. Either way, it’s a role Crowe can easily slip into without much effort, and Rachel McAdams makes a fine counterpoint as Della Frye, a spunky and cautious blogger who gives as good as she gets despite lacking Cal’s experience. Fans of the actress’ past work shouldn’t have much trouble accepting her in this role, one that makes it obvious what a great Lois Lane she might have made.
The rapport between these reporters from opposite schools of journalism is gelled by the presence of Helen Mirren as their demanding editor, as she ably steps into the role played by Bill Nighy in the original series. Mirren adds so much to her scenes that the entire film takes a noticeable dip whenever she’s not on screen. On the other hand, Ben Affleck isn’t at his best, not necessarily chewing the scenery in his scenes with Crowe, as much as being overly stuffed compared to the other actors. The actors are generally so mismatched you can never believe them to be friends, let alone roommates. This might have been intended to create an awkwardness due to an affair McAffrey had with the congressman’s wife, but Robin Wright Penn makes a lot more out of what might have normally been a throwaway role in her scenes with Crowe than Affleck does.
It took three talented writers to adapt this rich thriller and at times, you can almost tell which scenes were written by Matthew Carnahan (The Kingdom) or by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) or by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), because the subject matter plays up to all of their strengths. Even so, not every line delivers as much impact as you might expect, which might be in part to the mix of styles.
One thing that does set “State of Play” apart from other films dealing with journalism is how it tackles the subject of old school print reporting vs. the new-fangled blogger mentality that’s taken its place, something that’s particularly relevant at a time when print newspapers and magazines are going the way of VCRs. The comparisons between journalism and police work is another intriguing twist, as Cal uses some of the techniques of the latter to get information and follow up on his leads. These ideas add more depth to the storytelling to the point where they almost become more interesting than the corporate crime-thriller at the film’s core.
Otherwise, the movie never attempts to insert a lot of action into the exposition, instead using the movie’s most exciting scene, Cal’s face-off with a corporate assassin in a parking garage, as a way to further build tension for the dangers the duo face in their investigation. As convoluted with ideas as the film might seem early on, it does pull things together in the last half hour and introduces enough twists that one does walk away feeling as if it was a generally worthwhile journey.
The Bottom Line:
“State of Play” isn’t the first crime-thriller to be told from the perspective of news reporters, but its use of the relevant issues that come with the job does make it feel more timely. Unfortunately, those intentions do sometimes overpower the actual execution.