Will “State of Play” be the last feature film to commemorate the physical printing and shipping of a big-city daily newspaper (as it does in almost ennobling fashion behind the end credits)? Is this also the last gasp for movies about crusading journalists, a tradition dating back to the early ’30s? Whatever the answers, this efficient, admirably coherent thriller about reporters digging down to where politics and murder meet in Washington, D.C., has a wistful air about it as regards the fourth estate at a time when the profession is dangling by a thread. A tangy Russell Crowe performance and an intriguing story look to produce reasonable B.O. in wide release.
Kevin Macdonald’s first big studio feature reps a heavily compressed recapitulation of the bang-up, six-hour 2003 BBC miniseries written by Paul Abbott and directed by David Yates. Widely admired on both sides of the Pond, the original featured gritty London atmosphere, a raft of deftly sketched bit characters and lots of quotidian detail that a streamlined, conventional-length feature simply doesn’t have time for, and was sufficiently potent at its core to upset the sitting Labour government.
Shifting the action to recent Washington (with the fumes of the Bush administration still lingering) changes the tenor right off the bat, as does the distinctly Yank lingo penned by a succession of writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray.
But the setup is the same: A desperately fleeing young man is gunned down on the street, a bicycling witness is also shot and gravely wounded, while, in a seemingly unrelated incident, beautiful young Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) mysteriously meets her end under the wheels of a subway train.
Sonia worked for rising U.S. Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), but circumstances soon force him to admit they were having an affair. If it were as simple as that, he and wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn) would soon be able to put it all behind them in the time-tested Beltway manner. But there is much, much more to the story, as disheveled vet Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Crowe) and the paper’s pert upstart blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) soon realize.
Pic’s nostalgia for enterprising, old-time journalism — the sort immortalized in fast-talking Depression-era Warner Bros. quickies through “All the President’s Men,” “Zodiac” and many in between — begins with Cal’s diet (Goldfish, double cheeseburgers with chili) and resulting paunch, choice of automobile (a beat-up 1990 Saab), scruffy wardrobe, office-drawer whiskey bottle and rat’s nest of a cubicle piled high with yellowing paper. The only things missing are the visor, cuffs and dangling cigarette.
In most circumstances, Cal would let the chips fall where they may, but Stephen was his college roommate and best friend — at least, until Cal slept with Anne. Nevertheless, Cal offers his old pal PR advice on how to best handle the crisis, but when things begin spinning into uncharted territory, Cal’s moral compass proves as unsteady as anyone else’s.
A significant new element in this American version is the introduction of a standard-issue corporate villain, PointCorp, a Halliburton-like behemoth with deep ties to the administration. While the presence of such an easy villain may give weight to the journalistic side of things, its conventionality somewhat cheapens the drama.
From the outset, the film acknowledges the threat looming over mainstream journalism, first with the testy condescension with which old pro Cal treats know-it-all Della, and repeatedly with the remarks of editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) about the commercial pressures brought to bear by the paper’s new corporate owners. In fact, Cameron appears so preoccupied she’s barely able to function, reduced to pacing and fretting while firing off the occasional nasty zinger. Mirren could no doubt have done much more with the role given the opportunity, but it’s been so truncated she can’t come close to the marvels Bill Nighy wrought with the same part on TV.
The other role to suffer in comparison is that of Anne Collins, originally played with gusto by Polly Walker. In the earlier telling, she and Cal launch into an irresistible but ill-advised affair part-way through the story. Here, the indiscretion took place in the past but continues to exert an ambiguous but thoroughly unconvincing pull on her. Anne has been far too sanitized and conformed, and she’s much too classy a woman to even consider any future with the unwashed Cal.
But Macdonald — who flashed impressive journalistic chops in his documentaries, notably “One Day in September,” and displayed an affinity for politics in “The Last King of Scotland” — has a real feel for the expose/thriller aspects of the story, and commendably delivers the essentials, cramming a good deal into a little over two hours.
Eschewing trendy mannerisms, he makes sure the complicated action and numerous characters remain clear enough to follow and keeps the backgrounds alive and interesting. Journalistic insiders may get a derisive snort out of newsroom scenes anachronistically crammed with busy, gainfully employed workers, but might at the same time privately relish them as a last hurrah for a vanishing tradition.
McAdams is a lively presence as always, but her role (played in the miniseries by Kelly Macdonald) is devoid of any personal life or backstory, or even of much fluctuating opinion about her professional partner. Affleck has no problem conveying the upright, professional bearing of his politico (played in Britain by David Morrissey), but doesn’t offer much more.
There are many juicy supporting perfs, however, beginning with those of Jason Bateman as a spineless PR man pressured into revealing confidential information and Jeff Daniels as a priggish congressman who lapses into knee-jerk patriotism and moral uprightness when threatened.
In the end, though, it’s Crowe who must carry the most freight, which he does with another characterization to relish. Still bulky, although not as much so as in “Body of Lies,” long-tressed and somewhat grizzled, he finds the gist of the affable eccentricity, natural obsessiveness and mainstream contrarianism that marks many professional journalists. Crowe may always have been a brilliant character actor hiding inside a leading man’s body, but with age, the former is coming to the fore, which promises an interesting evolution. Although the role of Cal was played by John Simm in 1993, Crowe’s part actually merges two roles from the original, embracing as well another journo played by James McAvoy.
Production designer Mark Friedberg’s elaborate office set won’t likely be matched anytime soon. Craft contributions are sharp, including Rodrigo Prieto’s muted, blue-and-gray-dominated lensing, Justine Wright’s crisp, clear-minded editing, costume designer Jacqueline West’s character-defining outfits and Alex Heffes’ quietly pulsing score.