In the vein of All the President’s Men, Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play (based on a BBC miniseries of the same name) delves into the world of political conspiracies and investigative journalism. Russell Crowe plays an old school journalist for a struggling print newspaper who begins investigating the murder of a woman who is linked with a congressman (played by Ben Affleck) who happens to be an old friend of his. This, in turn, leads him down a dark path of political and corporate corruption. Rounding out the cast is Rachel McAdams as a blogger who becomes protégé to Crowe’s character and helps with the investigation, Helen Mirren as the gruff editor of the paper, Robin Wright Penn as the aggrieved wife of the congressman, and Jason Bateman as a sleazy PR man who becomes the key to the whole case. Everyone from top to bottom gives terrific performances, especially Bateman who gives some great much needed levity and plays sleazy magnificently. It’s an expert thriller with great, terse dialogue and some really good, solid twists that keeps the viewers on its toes.
Director Kevin Macdonald really puts the viewer into the beltway world that’s so closed off for the general populace. Set in Washington D.C., the film very much sets the viewer in that world though with the passing glimpses of the towering structures of government but taking the investigation down to the dark alleyways and dirty corners of Washington that hides behind the clean façade of upstanding government.
This, in a sense, represents the characters that inhabit this small beltway world where you can’t take anybody at their word and every relationship must come under the scrutiny of either the media or political power plays. Ben Affleck’s congressman character inhabits this best as the clean cut politician playing hero on a committee investigating a big time corporation for their private armies. But there’s a darkness and seedy side to the character that hides behind everything about him from his investigations to his marriage, even to his friendship with Crowe.
The film is basically a smart thriller derived from an even longer BBC miniseries which had six hours to unfurl its tale of political and corporate corruption. If anything, that’s the film’s great flaw. It hints and even attempts to delve into at points other parts of the investigation like corporate malfeasance, the privatization of our army, and other really juicy topics that never really get a hold in this film. They’re given slight nods to but bringing them up merely gives a glimpse that hurts the film more than anything else.
Part of the film’s strength is its great pacing of the investigation but it slows down every time it tries to play with another one of the toys given to it by the original miniseries but it knows it doesn’t have the time to really play with it all the way. The worst part of this is towards the end where they have their story but the corporation that has just recently bought the struggling paper won’t let them run it. It’d be an almost interesting avenue but it’s never given the time and feels more like an annoyance this close to the wrap up of the movie. And of course this leads to a big movie moment and its one of the very few moments in the film where everything kind of rings false.
But a kind of running theme that through the film that really works is the idea of print journalism dying and the blogger mentality that is rising in its place. (We’ll leave out the irony of pointing this out and the following views on said points in a blog.) We are living in a world that is moving digitally. No one seems to feel the need to buy newspapers anymore with all information being given out so freely all across the web. The film denotes the subtle tragedy of this and in the end comes on the side of print and ink.
This conflict takes shape in the butting heads of Crowe’s old school journalist and McAdams’ youthful blogger who falls into a mentor/protégé relationship that’s great fun to watch. McAdams’ need to get the story out and protesting against his old school tactics that rile up against the police gives a great sense of “they just don’t do that anymore” feeling that permeates all through Russell Crowe’s great performance. In the end, this seems to be the greater theme of the film. The things that we will lose if we lose print journalism to an all digital media delivery system. The credits are even set to scenes of the newspaper being made and distributed around the country. The great American process of finding that greater truth will be lost as opposed to the instant now of the Internet where what is truth, rumor, or something else is lost altogether to the basic need for information whether accurate or not. It’s a theme of the whole movie on why Crowe chases this story so hard. Cops will only solve the murder and move on. It is his job to reveal the greater truth to the people.
As a side note, this also another thing I absolutely love about this movie. A weaker filmmaker might’ve tried to shoehorn a romantic relationship between these two characters and I am so thankful that this is never even hinted at between these two. Whereas every other aging action hero tries to bed some new young actress of the week, these are two real actors having great fun with their characters and never giving out anything false about their relationship that wouldn’t work in the real world.
Although, a relationship that doesn’t work in the film is the one between Crowe and Affleck. Much of the central drama in the film involves believing in the friendship between these two old college roommates. But it’s a little hard to find that in the chemistry between Crowe and Affleck. Individually, they give great performances. Crowe is as good as always and Affleck plays a politician frayed to the edge great but when they’re together, it becomes very hard to buy into the dynamic that they try to set up for these two. It’s not a movie killer since everything works so well but it comes really close at times.
This is a great movie that would’ve fit right in the milieu of the great 70’s thrillers like All the President’s Men or Three Days of the Condor. While not quite reaching the heights of those great movies, it could nestle itself in quite nicely in the company of those movies.