State of Play (Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman) – Remember when newspapers conducted Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalism? The Washington Post’s breaking of the Watergate scandal by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein epitomized the role of print journalism in investigating corruption, particularly in politics. In recent years, this has more often fallen to TV, magazines and to an even greater extent, the Internet. Mostly, however, 24-hour-a-day cable news has replaced anything even remotely like investigative reporting. State of Play, based on the six-episode British mini-series, is a tense mystery that borrows from All The President’s Men, making the journalists seem bigger than the story they are uncovering. Russell Crowe plays our hero, scruffy journalist Cal McAffrey of the Washington Globe. His former college roommate is now Congressman Stephen Collins played by Ben Affleck. The film starts with the death of the Congressman’s assistant, Sonja Baker, causing a very emotional reaction from Collins, signaling that the two have had a romantic relationship. All eyes are on the Congressman. The fact that Collins’ subcommittee (and, thus, Baker) is investigating a private contractor of military personnel, PointCorp (or is that Blackwater? Or 24’s Starwood?) clearly means something is amiss. McAffrey – cool, wisecracking, seasoned – seeks the truth, which means clearing his buddy. But cub reporter and blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) isn’t so sure. McAffrey and his editor, played by Oscar winner Helen Mirren in a throwaway role, see how big the story could be, meaning Cal and Della need to team up since Della isn’t up to it alone.
Yes, you have seen this movie before but not as well done as State of Play does it. There is murder, a conspiracy or two, and deception going on. Turns out McAffrey and Collins’ wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn), were lovers in college and maybe beyond. When the Congressman’s reputation goes south, do the two hook back up? Is PointCorp behind it all? Is the murderer really the Congressman, a paid assassin, or is it just an accident that she fell on the subway tracks right as a train was coming? This is a breathtaking two hours of intrigue that recalls a day of old-style movie making where plot trumps effects. I really enjoyed the film and its star-studded cast even though Ben Affleck proved to me once again that he is all looks and little talent. In the presence of Crowe, Mirren, and even McAdams, he never quite becomes believable as a war hero who was subsequently elected to Congress. The movie glorifies both newspapers and investigative reporters, both dying breeds. The reality about the death of the newspaper industry is addressed here, both in the acknowledgement that the only profitable arm of Washington Globe’s empire is its Internet operation and in the fact that the paper is now owned by a global media conglomerate. So there is both a tense thriller going on as well as social commentary about the modern media.
Finally, for my fellow Pittsburghers, notice that Crowe is a big Steelers fan. He has Steelers clothing, glasses, and a lamp prominently placed. He also calls Collins “S’Liberty,” which refers to the section of Pittsburgh known as East Liberty. But Collins represents the 7th Congressional district of Pennsylvania, which is in Philadelphia (one scene shows an Phillies banner). This is never explained to the audience but the nickname is used at least twice. Big budget, big stars, big story. A reasonably big payoff with people being “played” throughout, hence the cryptic title State of Play, I think. While there are also big, big plot holes, you will enjoy the film.