State of Play is a movie that's really about two separate things. On the surface, it's a murder mystery about a reporter's search for the killer of a congressman's mistress. Underneath, however, it's a story about the changing face of journalism in this era of blogging. With more and more newspapers going under, the blog has become our dominant source of news and information, yet it also seems to have far fewer ethical restrictions. Or does it? For a long time, I was certain that State of Play was taking a retro, the-old-way-is-better stance, but by the end, I wasn't so sure anymore. In spite of some undeniable flaws, the film remains worthwhile simply because it does dare to challenge some notions. It also boasts a first-rate cast delivering strong performances.
Ben Affleck stars as U.S. Congressman Stephen Collins, who serves as chairman for a committee that oversees defense spending. He is getting ready to lead a hearing against a private Blackwater-style contractor when his lead investigator, Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), either jumps or is pushed in front of a moving subway car. Russell Crowe plays Cal McCaffrey, the grizzled long-time reporter for a Washington, D.C. newspaper. He thinks the timing of Sonia's death is suspicious, especially given that Collins has been linked romantically to the young woman as well.
Cal begins working on the story, but is forced to collaborate with Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a blogger for the paper's online side. Cal resents her "instant news" and tendency to report stories before all the facts are in. It's a match made by the paper's editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), who herself is under pressure from new owners to make money. Cameron knows that Cal was once Collins' college roommate, and she encourages him to use his friendship to get the scoop. Cal, on the other hand, wants to help his old pal avoid the other media sharks. The two have a convoluted history, compounded by the fact that Cal has long been in love with Collins' wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn). Despite this, the two share information and angles, until the shocking truth of Sonia's death finally comes to light.
You may already be able to tell that State of Play is one stuffed movie. In addition to the two biggest components - the murder mystery and the commentary on new media - the film also wants to be an indictment of for-hire defense contractors, a romantic triangle, a treatise on style over substance in the news industry, and a tale of broken friendships. That's a lot of stuff to cram into a 127-minute movie.
State of Play is based on an acclaimed 9-hour British miniseries, and if there's a problem with the movie, it's that so much has been crammed into such a short running time. There are moments in the film where you can feel material being condensed. For example, the attraction between Anne and Cal is shown, yet we never really feel the depth of it, and therefore it never achieves the kind of central importance the filmmakers obviously want it to have. The same goes for the history between Cal and Collins. I think the story's events would have more resonance if we had greater understanding of the complex dynamic between them. As it stands, we get only little snippets of dialogue meant to suggest their detailed history. I didn't see the miniseries, but can imagine a full hour being devoted to each of these subjects. A few minutes doesn't really provide enough scope; at times, the approach is comparable to trying to cram everything that happened in the first season of "Lost" or HBO's "The Wire" into just two hours. The streamlining removes some of the impact.
On the plus side, a movie being too ambitious is never a bad thing. While the miniseries is undoubtedly a richer and more fulfilling dramatic experience, the film still manages to be exciting, thought-provoking, and highly entertaining. Much of that is due to the outstanding cast. Russell Crowe turns in a dependably strong performance, and I really liked his scenes with the equally fine Rachel McAdams. Their chemistry (both good and bad) is unexpected, giving the story a jolt. Ben Affleck takes on a role originally earmarked for Brad Pitt (who pulled out abruptly). While Affleck's inherent youthfulness might make him seem unlikely as a congressman, the actor's well-documented political activism works to counter that. We know Affleck is smart and passionate about politics, so he pulls the role off. Helen Mirren and Jeff Daniels (as a politician who may hold crucial evidence) and Jason Bateman (as a slimy friend of Sonia's) are also great.
As the plot goes on, we begin to understand that, for all his speechifying about journalistic integrity, Cal is just as susceptible to bias as anyone else. He goes out of his way to help an old friend, even if that means inserting himself into the unfolding of the story he's covering. That's an intriguing idea, which takes us to some unexpected places. The central mystery is largely satisfying, albeit not entirely unpredictable. I liked the relentless pace that director Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland) brings to its telling nevertheless.
At times, State of Play feels like it's rushing through things in order to squeeze nine hours worth of source material into a much shorter running time; even so, there's enough about the picture that works to make it an smart, absorbing thriller with some real-world implications.
( out of four)
State of Play is rated PG-13 for some violence, language including sexual references, and brief drug content. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat