Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play is an engrossing adult thriller, but it’s also notable for making its hero a bitter old newspaperman struggling to come to grips with new media. The screenplay from Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray — a pretty solid threesome — is in many ways a throwback to old-school political thrillers where the journalist gets at the truth with a mix of shoe leather and blind luck, but it’s also forward-thinking in its attempts to examine the crumbling print news industry and the ethical gray area between selling out and selling papers. Some of the most interesting moral questions in the film arise not out of situations involving reporters and their sources but the internal struggle between one man trying to get a story out and the incoming corporate ownership that only wants to grow their bottom line. Based on a BBC miniseries from 2003, State of Play is a solidly built, well-cast suspense story that works exactly as well as it ought to, which is to say, it’s a competent film that gets its job done without making a mess.
The film opens with a propulsive blast as a guy who looks like a mugger runs like a madman through the streets of Washington, D.C., only to finally be caught in an alley by a silent gunman. Once he’s down, the shooter spies a civilian passerby and eliminates him, as well. It’s a gritty, frenetic sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film and also begins to make that argument that it often doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad; sometimes you just wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The next morning, Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is cruising by the scene in his battered old Saab when he stops to investigate. He’s written as a bit of dependable stereotype — his car is littered with junk food wrappers, and he’s compulsively clad in the wrinkled corduroy blazer seemingly issued at j-school graduation — but over the course of the film, Crowe humanizes the character and makes him more relatable than the cliché he could have become. The trio of screenwriters also unfortunately hit a sour note at the beginning when Cal approaches the scene to talk to a ranking police officer and actually pulls out the hoary chestnut along the lines of: “I heard ballistics was just here.” “Who told you that?” “You just did.” It’s confounding why a line so overused it’s long since passed into parody would be used in a script boasting the names of Gilroy (Michael Clayton) and Ray (Shattered Glass, Breach), but the line turns out to be one of the few exceptions to the screenplay. The rest of the dialogue is believable and character-driven, and it’s also a relief to see a newspaper movie in which no one shouts, “Stop the presses!”
While Cal starts chasing down the story about the shooting, he’s also drawn into another local death when a congressional aide is killed on a subway platform. She worked for Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), Cal’s old college roommate, and so Cal finds himself balancing his duties to Stephen as a friend with his desire to get to the bottom of what happened. Cal partners with Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) on the story, but he bristles at first because she’s part of the new blogging team at the paper and he views her as an untrained writer who posts before checking her facts. She’s less than enamored of him, as well, especially his willingness to insert his personal desires into the story and tiptoe around issues of legality when it comes to getting information. The film mostly comes down on Cal’s side as Della reluctantly follows his lead, but it’s also aware enough of its own complexities that it doesn’t condone Cal’s questionable investigative methods, either.
The bulk of the film follows the intertwining cases and Cal’s and Della’s efforts to uncover the truth behind a possibly connected series of deaths and a tightening circle of governmental power that’s blocking their way. Macdonald engineers some genuinely intense sequences, too, even if they feel lifted from the ur-text of modern political thrillers: Della unsuspectingly walks right by the killer in a public place, Cal chases down a lead and winds up trapped in a parking garage with the gunman, etc. Even the score by Alex Heffes is the kind of purposeful but generic tonal throbbing that would be at home in any basic action movie. But the film is still made with enough skill and energy that it’s enjoyable to watch even if nothing about it feels groundbreaking.
A big part of that is thanks to the sturdy cast. Crowe is often better at playing worn-out schlubs than typical leading men, and Cal is in many ways an emotional echo of The Insider’s Jeffrey Wigand in his narrow-minded pursuit of the truth. McAdams is also great in her role, mixing a believable naivete with a queasiness about what’s happening around her. And Jason Bateman is downright amazing in a supporting part as a skeevy publicity man tied to the growing conspiracy. But it’s Affleck who’s actually most impressive simply because this is one of the few times he gets to play a fully grown man; thanks to makeup, he’s actually playing a little beyond his age, since he’s eight years younger than Crowe and is supposed to look like they went to university together. He hits all the right notes as a public official being chewed apart by the system but also one who’s cold enough to take calculated risks with his own life and career. Affleck hasn’t been this real on screen since Hollywoodland, and it’s nice to see him finally getting some stronger roles, even if they’re in somewhat midlevel entries like this one.
The most interesting thing about State of Play is the specificity of its technological era; by making the editorial and financial conflict between print and electronic media not just a loose end but a thread in the main story, the film cements itself firmly in a unique spot in movie history. It is very much a newsroom thriller that could only be told in 2008-09, and there’s a nice parallel between the belt-tightening at major news organizations and the way Macdonald’s film plays out so well to become a capable thriller despite the potential handicaps of a familiar-feeling script and tone. He’s tasked to do more with less, and he succeeds.