State of Play

by Rick Grant
Grade: A- / Rated PG-13 / 137 min
In this gripping thriller, Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is a ruffled old-school investigative journalist sporting out-of-date long hair. He works for a typically financially floundering newspaper The Washington Globe. He drives an old Saab and even his cluttered office computer is fifteen years old.
McAffrey doggedly digs up the big scandals like Watergate and usually works alone. His best friend and former college roommate is now a Congressman, Rep. Stephan Collins, (Ben Affleck) who heads a committee that is investigating a private military security firm (think Blackwater) that has a powerful lobby on the Hill.
McAffrey’s relationship with Rep. Collins makes McAffrey privy to a string of events that lead him into a dark world of ex-military assigns and murder. He senses this could develop into a huge story, spiced with sex, lies, and video tape.
A young reporter and blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdam) approaches McAffrey to collaborate on a story. At first, he rudely rebuffs her, but he senses she has the investigative skills to help him with this breaking story.
His Editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) wants short tabloid fodder to sell newspapers and ads. His long range style is expensive and not popular with the owners of the publication. Still, she realizes he’s on to a potential attention getting story with juicy headlines. McAffrey asks Ms. Lynne to assign Frye to the story. She’s reluctant, but relents when Frye stands up for herself.
When Rep. Collins’ mistress is murdered, McAffrey is on the case. His involvement is complicated by the fact that he’s been having an affair with Collins’ wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn). Three other murders related to Collins activities further peak McAffrey’s interest.
Tautly directed by Kevin MacDonald and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, the scenario is character and dialogue driven. Russell Crowe is riveting as McAffrey. It’s one of his best and most convincing performances. The supporting cast is superb, and Macdonald’s even pacing lets the characters tell the story. There are the usual twists and turns, however the scenario is not purposely hard to figure out when the pieces start to fall into place.
As McAffrey suspected, Della Frye’s instincts are right on when she goes to the hospital to interview a witness and an assassin’s bullet barely misses her. Clearly, the stakes are getting higher and everything is orbiting Rep Collins. McAffrey can’t deny that Collins is not telling him the whole truth as other events happen that keep McAffrey investigating the expanding case.
The use of ambiant sounds in the background of this film nearly overpowers the dialogue, which, in this script, is important. This new technique is designed to give the viewer a sense of place and time, but it’s overused and way too loud. In this scenario, the dialogue tells the story, and if the viewer misses lines, it may confuse them later in the film.
This is the best “newspaper story” since All The Kings Men, and makes us nostalgic for the good old days when newspapers were widely read. Now, of course, newspapers are gradually fading into history and their power to break big stories has long been diluted by the Internet and the electronic media. This film reminds us of a bygone era when the printed word on the front page of a big newspaper was gospel. Now, words that are drifting around cyberspace just don’t have the same impact.