“State of Play” is a good old- fashioned newspaper thriller in which the curmudgeonly journalist solves the case using wits, not guns. The film is fast-paced without being manic, the story full of satisfying twists without abandoning credibility.
Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is an old-school journalist in a new-school market. He eats vending machine junk food while chasing down a story, drives a 20-year-old Saab, and writes on a clunky computer with a 15-year-old monitor. He won’t file a story until he is sure it is accurate. His journalistic nemesis is Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), the smart young blogger for the paper’s new website, who posts stories hourly instead of filing them weekly and never has a pen on hand. The two team up on an intense story (written by Tony Gilroy) that involves murder, politics, sex, and corruption – who could ask for anything more?
In many ways, “State of Play” is a comment on the State of Journalism, a paean to old-fashioned newspaper reporting in an age when print journalism is dying. Shots of the Watergate complex subtly remind us of 1972 and the pinnacle of investigative journal- ism. A key scene of the film even takes place in a parking garage. Ah, those were the days!
When Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), Cal’s friend and former college roommate, is implicated in the apparent suicide of a beautiful young research assistant, Cal vows to find the truth and clear his friend. With the congressman’s reputation about to be destroyed by the blog-now, ask- questions-later generation of journalists, Cal urges Collins to “build a plausible alternative story” to counter their jumped-to conclusions while he tracks down evidence that will clear him. The plot widens to include two other, seemingly unrelated, murders and a healthy dose of corruption.
Della is ready to file her story at every turn, and managing editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) urges the same, cynically explaining, “We print the story now. If it’s wrong, we’ll print a retraction tomorrow. And we’ll print a correction the day after that. The public will read every story – and they’ll read it in our pages. The new owners are interested in sales, not discretion!” But Cal is determined to get the story right.
Soon PointCorp, a private military company providing soldiers to fight in the Middle East, a company that Congressman Collins is investigating, is implicated. Naturally. Modern Hollywood bad guys have to be financed by a giant corporation, and throwing in the military connection makes them that much worse. Ironically, when America is actually being nationalized and socialized faster than we can say “Bailout!”, the characters in this film are horrified that Homeland Security might be privatized, with billions of dollars being directed to PointCorp to handle domestic emergencies, terror- ism, and surveillance issues.
Frankly, I was ready to stand up and cheer for PointCorp, or any movement toward private solutions to our nation’s security problems. But that’s a differ- ent story. Meanwhile, I was almost shocked when the lead cop responded to the reporters’ theory by saying, “So you think a corporate conglomerate is behind all this? I’ve only ever seen that on TV.”
Ben Affleck contributes a solid performance as the congressman, and Robin Wright Penn is fine as his lovely and long-suffering wife. Jason Bateman is superb in his small role as public relations CEO Dominic Foy, with just the right mix of moxie, polish, and sleaze.
Crowe and McAdams work well together as the investigative team, with their personality conflicts focusing on the differences in their ages and experience rather than on their genders. Similarly, the role of editor Cameron Lynne, originally played by Bill Nighy in the BBC television miniseries “State of Play,” was given to Helen Mirren without changing a word of the dialogue. We crossed the gender bridge long ago, so it’s refreshing to see a film in which gender simply doesn’t matter.
The towering character in this film, however, is the newspaper itself. Be sure to stay for the final credits, and watch the process by which the story is finally printed and distributed. It’s a beautiful but dying art. But print journalism’s strength is also its weakness: more time is taken to investigate and write a print story than a digital story, and it will include more background and detail. But more time is also required to deliver it to the reader, and by that time it’s already yesterday’s news.
The sad truth is that, by the time Cal’s story reaches the front page of the Globe, the talking heads in the electronic media will have been scooping him for hours, repeating their headlines every 15 minutes with live footage of the eventual arrest. If it’s juicy enough, YouTube will pick it up, and millions more will see it that way. But that’s all it is – headlines. The newspaper veteran has done the work, but the coiffed blondes on .cable will get the story. Meanwhile, three hours after Cal’s story slaps the reader’s driveway, it will be wrapping the garbage or lining the cat’s litter box. This well-crafted film is a salute to a dying institution.