BC-STATEOFPLAY-MOVIE-REVIEW:FT – entertainment (950 words)
State of Play’
By Christopher Kelly
McClatchy Newspapers
Tense late-night phone calls; cloak-and-dagger chases through shadowy alleys of Washington; a rapidly expanding political scandal that could very well bring down the entire government; and a pair of dogged newspaper reporters determined to get the story, even if it means getting their hands very dirty in the process.
With a tip of the hat to the classic “All the President’s Men,” Kevin Macdonald’s “State of Play” updates the investigative reporter thriller to a post-9/11 age, where corporate greed and war profiteering run amok. The movie doesn’t quite work – it’s neither as ruthless as it wants to be, nor as earnest as might have been – but even when it’s misfiring it has an engrossing, old-fashioned appeal. It’s a reminder that you never realize quite how much you’ve missed something until you get a taste of it once again.
Russell Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, a Washington newspaper reporter of the old school: He costs too much; takes too long to write his stories; and has a particular disdain for the future of journalism, as represented by the newspaper’s perky twentysomething blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams).
While investigating a mysterious double homicide, Cal learns that an aide to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) has also been murdered – and he begins to suspect a connection. His editor (Helen Mirren), mindful of the new paper’s new corporate owners, who insist on turning a profit, would much rather pursue the juicy side of the story: The married Collins was having an affair with the aide, and now his attempts to bring down a Blackwater-like defense contracting firm could be sabotaged. But Cal – who may or may not be trying to protect Collins, who just so happens to have been Cal’s college roommate – persuades her that there is a much bigger and more important story afoot.
As you might guess, there’s a lot going on in “State of Play,” which was adapted from a six-hour British miniseries that first aired in 2003. But Macdonald, much as he did in the similarly gripping “The Last King of Scotland,” keeps the proceedings barreling along without ever losing sight of the characters. Beautifully inhabited by Crowe, with his hair long and unwashed-looking and a permanent five o’clock shadow on his face, McAfrey isn’t so much a workaholic as the kind of guy for whom life and work are the same thing.
He sinks so completely into the investigation that he doesn’t realize that his personal moral lapses are rapidly muddying his journalistic ethics. He’s matched nicely by McAdams, who manages to humanize a woman who has been written as a walking, talking symbol of everything the newer generation of journalists could stand to learn from the old guard.
For all that Macdonald gets right here, though, “State of Play” nonetheless seems plagued by a certain Hollywood-itis; in the pursuit of delivering popcorn-munching thrills, it steadily loses credibility. Affleck, for instance, is not just wildly miscast (at what university, other than one that contains a fountain of youth on the campus green, would he and Crowe have been roommates?). He also turns the congressman into a speechifying paragon of political self-righteousness, prone to pounding his fist on the table and demanding justice. In his scenes opposite the vastly more understated and intuitive Crowe, it feels as if we watching two different movies.
Or perhaps just one very conflicted one. Indeed, the bigger problem here is that “State of Play” doesn’t really have the courage of its own cynical convictions. As the onion layers of the story are unpeeled, we learn that Cal has had an affair with Stephen’s wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn). He also makes a critical decision to ignore a clearly newsworthy aspect of the story, presumably to prevent Stephen further embarrassment.
The screenplay begins to flirt with a very provocative idea, that Cal is just as corrupt as the journalists he’s covering; and that – in the modern media-industrial-political complex – everyone is so hopelessly interconnected that it’s impossible to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys. In the final section of the movie, as a series of all-too-predictable reversals play out, Cal emerges as a traditional Hollywood hero. He even manages to stop the movie cold periodically to take a proud, Capra-esque stand for the ailing newspaper industry.
With a screenplay credited to the three writers in Hollywood trying to resurrect the spirit of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, Matthew Michael Carnahan (“The Kingdom”), Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) and Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”), “State of Play” ends up feeling a little at odds with itself. It wants us implicate us on the characters’ transgressions and allow us to feel superior.
See it regardless, for its taut pacing, for its gorgeously moody photography (the cinematography is by Rodrigo Prieto, who also did “Brokeback Mountain”), and for two startling interludes. One features Jason Bateman, who turns up briefly, electrically and unforgettable, as a slick, high-as-a-kite public relations agent, fearful for his life, who resolves a number of the story’s mysteries.
The other is the closing credit sequence, which observes the process of the newspaper being laid out, printed and then loaded onto deliver trucks, as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long as I Can See the Light” plays on the soundtrack. The elegiac and the ironic come together exquisitely, and – better late than never – Macdonald seems to finally find the delicate tone he’s been searching for all along.

3 stars (out of 5)
Rating: PG-13 (violence, strong language, sexual content, drug references), 127 min.
Cast: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams

(c) 2009, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Visit the Star-Telegram on the World Wide Web: www.star-telegram.com.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
AP-NY-04-16-09 0854EDT

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