Quick! Name three classic journalism movies! Yes, there are three: All the President's Men, His Girl Friday and The Third Man. Oh, there are some other good ones, but in general, Hollywood gets journalism all wrong. It has to have unbelievable heightened dramatic tension, not much to do with journalism and it seems practically to be a requirement that the headlines always look stupid, not like real newspaper headlines in grammar, form or visual appearance.
State of Play gets the headlines right! So that's one strike in its favor. As for the heightened dramatic tension and lack of interest in real journalism, that's all there. And despite its Washington setting, it doesn't have much interest in politics, either. As far as journalism movies, I'd put it somewhere between the not-bad The Pelican Brief and the execrable The Paper.
The film features a lot of remarkable actors without much to do. Russell Crowe is sometimes interesting but mostly bland, Helen Mirren an afterthought, Harry Lennix window-dressing. Rachel McAdams turns in a hard-eyed, determined portrayal with some depth, Jason Bateman has a stellar cameo as a pimpin' p.r. flack, and Ben Affleck! is really pretty good as Congressman Collins, who seems constantly just about to fall apart and who has a cool, weird Pennsylvania accent that almost but not quite reminds one unfavorably of his bad "Saturday Night Live" impersonations.
The story begins, and continues, with a fast pace which doesn't bore until the boring plot is revealed, and then it all seems kind of boring. The opening features two murders, and Russell Crowe's reporter Cal McAffrey (shouldn't that be McCaffrey?) riding in in his beat-up Saab to take the story for the fictional Washington Globe, for which he is a well-connected, tough-minded investigative reporter.
He's so well connected, it gets to become a joke, as we watch him slouch around town anywhere he pleases, knowing every gatekeeper, cop, criminologist by their first names. There is a scene with Viola Davis as a coroner which adds a bit of flesh to this silly conceit, but it seemed like there needed to be a scene or two showing him actually beginning one of these friendly relationships to make it seem real.
McAffrey, no fool, soon makes connections between the murders, and more murders, a shady Blackwater-type defense contracting company being investigated by Congressman Collins, and Collins's own private life, in which McAffrey has more than a passing interest. He and McAdams's blogger/cub reporter Della Frye are soon in over their heads in scandal, sleaze and corruption.
The defense contractor angle is kind of shopworn, and State of Play doesn't try to get insightful about it. To be generous, I guess you could say they were making a point about the banality of evil. It was pretty banal. It reminded me (unfavorably in comparison) of the plot of the excellent television show "Jericho," but they dared to go somewhere with it.
I suppose it's not really a spoiler to complain that the plot stinks, that it's clichéd, silly, and pointless. It would have been more interesting if something interesting had happened.
There's that legendary acting moment in All the President's Men when Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee walks down the row of silent desks in the newsroom and taps one of them for emphasis, which the real Woodward and Bernstein say was Bradlee all over, but which was just another day at the office for a great, intuitive actor like Robards. It wouldn't, therefore, be intuitive for Crowe to repeat it, but still the most suspense in State of Play is wondering whether Russell Crowe will tap a desk like that as he frequently walks up and down the rows. So I won't ruin it.
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