When Russell Crowe appears in a movie looking like a holdover from the early 70’s — long hair, gruffy beard and a pot belly — good things are usually afoot (his last few roles: Body of Lies and American Gangster have shown us that). Hollywood has obviously taken notice too, as he combines all three of these attributes in his role of Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey in State of Play.
Based on a BBC mini-series of the same name, State of Play is an intriguing murder mystery with a now expected political spin woven in. McAffrey finds himself in the thick of it, when, investigating a murder, he uncovers ties to another murder linked to his old college roommate and now powerful congressman, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Collins insists on his innocence and claims he’s being setup by Pointcorp, an evil defense contracting firm like Halliburton that he’s grilling on the House floor. With some help from fledgling reporter and blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), McAffrey sets out to get the story, while at the same time, trying to protect his friend (which is at odds with his getting to the truth).
For nearly two hours, director Kevin Macdonald keeps you reeled in with a tense combination of suspense, intrigue and lively acting from his stars. As is the case with most thrillers, red herrings are introduced throughout, and twists and turns abound. Some of these story revelations were a bit of a letdown, most notably the ending that is so obvious in its unraveling; it very nearly cheapens the previous 120 minutes spent building up to it. I was also confused about the relationship between McAffrey and Collins’ wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn). Perhaps their past affair in the mini-series provided a background of sorts, but in this condensed version it doesn’t develop into anything of worth and should have been scrapped by screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray during the transition to the big screen.
And while the focus of State of Play is not within the development of the characters as nearly as much as it is about the unfolding of the mystery, it is the characterizations of some these roles that keeps the movie engrossing. The brunt of this responsibility, as you may expect, rests squarely on the shoulders of Crowe, who steps up the challenge, yet again. He exudes the grizzled defiant and inquisitive nature of a hardened reporter with an easing charm. Rachel McAdams offers up a good showing as the trendy new kid on the block naïve to the ways of old-school journalism. Perhaps the only role that one-ups Crowe is that of editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), even though she is used sparingly in the film. Watching her juggle the need for a truthful story versus the need to draw a profit for the newspaper via sensationalism was quite revealing, especially considering the incredible pressure the newspaper industry is currently under.
You’ll notice I didn’t make any mention of Ben Affleck. That’s because he is, well, Ben Affleck . He was rather wooden and unemotional in his portrayal of a man who stands to lose everything he’s worked his entire life for. He doesn’t necessarily hurt, but he certainly doesn’t help, the movie.
A good journalistic point of view mystery thriller is a rarity these days. I suspect, however, there will a boon of these styles of movies as the medium we know as the newspaper continues to die its inevitable death. State of Play is a damn good way to start to pay homage to a time when the bottom line wasn’t the only line, and when the media actually cared to uncover the truth.