When you strip away the packaging, there isn’t really all that much to this feature adaptation (and Americanization) of the 2003 British TV miniseries about governmental skullduggery. The screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray is rather like a combination of “Three Days of the Condor” and “All the President’s Men” relocated to the contemporary world of the war on terror, Blackwater, Halliburton, and the decline of newspapers, with a dose of the Chandra Levy scandal thrown into the mix for good measure. Despite the convolutions of the plot, though, it falls far short of the standard set by the paranoid pictures of the seventies like those mentioned above and “The Parallax View.” Most of the revelations it offers about congressional corruption and the dangers of privatizing public business for corporate profit are pretty predictable, and even a sudden turn in the last reel—the big twist ending—has a pulpy, inauthentic feel, like the close of “Primal Fear” (but not nearly as effective).
But happily the packaging is excellent. The trio of writers have produced a script that may not be the cleverest of stories, but does boast a substantial number of sharp one-liners. And they’re expertly delivered by a fine cast, especially the charismatic lead, all working under the expert hand of a talented young director. Add to the mix atmospheric cinematography, smooth editing and a suitably propulsive score that urges the action forward, and you have a movie that’s no classic but is still engrossing and enjoyable.
The hero of the piece is rumpled newspaper reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe, reveling in what amounts to an extended character turn as a sloppy guy with scruffy hair, a “Columbo”-like car and an attitude that combines intense dedication with bad-boy charm). He’s drawn into a complex of mysterious, and perhaps interrelated, events, the street killings of two men—an addict-thief and a bicyclist who witnesses the first shooting—and the apparent subway suicide of congressional staffer Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer).
The matter gets personal for McAffrey, because Baker was the chief aide to his old college roommate, Pennsylvania representative Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck, stiff but appropriately serious), who’s committee is engaged in an investigation of a Halliburton-style conglomerate that’s making huge profits from taking over many of the security and supply functions that used to be performed by the military itself. And the boyishly handsome lawmaker, who himself has a sterling military record, comes under attack when it’s revealed that he’s been engaged in an affair with Baker. Moreover, McAffrey had once had a fling with the congressman’s wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn, okay), who’s devastated and angry over the revelations about her husband—and their feelings for one another haven’t been entirely quenched.
McAffrey’s dogged pursuit of the truth is complicated by the conflict between his professional and personal motives, and also by the fact that he’s forced to work together with the very symbol of the “new media” he despises—blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams, good if not outstanding). And, of course, he has a tough-as-nails editor (Helen Mirren, overcoming the thinness of her character with canny line readings) who’s struggling to save the paper, just bought by a conglomerate interested only in the bottom line, and who pushes hard against her old-style newshound’s habit of demanding extensions and taking risks to get the whole story rather than going with the easy half-scoop.
And there’s an array of colorful secondary characters to add to the fun. Jason Bateman is especially delicious as a PR guy who proves a vital—if unwilling—witness to elements of the conspiracy, and Jeff Daniels makes the most of his few scenes as an unctuous congressional colleague of Collins. The paper’s staffers who interact with Crowe, Mirren and McAdams—played by Josh Mostel, Michael Weston and Barry Shabaka Henley—contribute to the mood of lovable journalistic eccentricity that the picture is at pains (rather anachronistically, it must be said) to portray. The cops, led by Harry Lennix and Michael Jace, are considerably less interesting, though, as is the “Terminator”-style hit-man played stolidly by Michael Berresse. A more menacing villain would have helped, though a sequence set in an underground parking garage (a nod, perhaps to Deep Throat?) is pretty scary.
Technically “State of Play” is a top-notch job. Director Kevin Macdonald, who made a splash with “The Last King of Scotland” (featuring another strong lead turn, from Forrest Whitaker), shows that he can work on a larger canvas without losing telling personal detail, and he’s helped inestimably by Rodrigo Prieto’s nimble yet moodily effective widescreen cinematography (complementing Mark Friedberg’s fine production design) and Justine Wright’s smooth editing, which keeps the plot threads from getting tangled and helps give the action sequences added punch. And Alex Heffes’ score ratchets up the tension, even if it can be awfully insistent at times.
“State of Play”—not the greatest of titles, by the way—will, in retrospect, seem like fairly small potatoes when compared with the best political thrillers. Even among Crowe’s previous pictures, it doesn’t come close to “The Insider.” But it’s certainly superior to either “Proof of Life” or “Body of Lies,” and while it may not stick with you very long, while it’s unspooling it will hold your interest.