Adapted from the six-hour-long 2003 BBC miniseries, “State of Play” manages to compact meaty portions of intrigue and thrills into two snappy hours. A study of political power plays, calamitous sexual impulses, and the twilight of newspaper journalism, “State of Play” is riveting, sublimely acted, and sincerely intelligent...at times.
When Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), a pivotal research assistant and lover to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), is murdered, the mysterious death triggers a series of potential high-profile news stories for hardened journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), employed by the deteriorating Washington Globe newspaper. Sharing a personal history with Collins and his wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn), McAffrey is conflicted over the type of story he wants to tell, leading him to team up with political blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) to help sort out the mess of rumors, deceptions, and further bloodshed. As McAffrey plunges further into the investigation, he finds his long-standing methods of reporting are counterproductive to the changing world of profitable journalism, pushing the writer to shape the story quickly, at the risk of alienating old friends.
“State of Play” is a knotty thriller that almost seems ashamed of itself, fearful of losing the greater audience by holding tight on wordy, flinching acts of investigation to fuel a majority of its tight narrative twists and turns. Director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) is seeking to mold a film that might appeal to those in dire need of brain food at the multiplex and those who like their mystery spoon-fed. It’s a troubled cocktail of intent, marring an otherwise gripping mystery inspired by the great paranoia/journalism thrillers of the 1970s.
While “State of Play” loses itself to occasional spasms of on-the-nose screenwriting, snarling Bruckheimerish assassins, and unbecoming sequences of gunplay, the film is an exceptionally taut concoction overall. Arranging a parade of colorful characters and diverse motivations, Macdonald finds chess-like timing for the story, keeping his cast on the move as the mystery of Sonia Baker unleashes a torrent of Washington D.C. revelations and double-crosses. While remaining topical with a crucial subplot concerning the development of privatized armies profiting from a war-happy government, Macdonald seems more enchanted by the unseemly side of the case, and the intricate personal history that clouds McAffrey’s raw investigative judgment.
Performed with beautiful timing and believable fatigue by the cast (including Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, and Helen Mirren), “State of Play” is at its most darkly rapturous when fixed on the exploratory maneuvering of the journalists, observing these professionals execute remarkable pulls of information as the mystery intensifies. The film is truly a compelling team effort, but as the de facto lead character, Crowe reawakens himself with this performance, lugging himself out of a string of misguided motion pictures to find a role that fits him and his hardened screen instincts well. As the dumpy but gifted reporter, Crowe rumbles around the frame performing a spellbinding ballet of dog-eared curiosity and suspicion, elevating the ensemble’s game with his leadership. Affleck also registers strongly as the besieged politician, playing a crucial role with interesting shades of internal conflict.
As much as “State of Play” is a murder mystery, it’s also substantial elegy for the newspaper business, underscoring the tension with forceful scraps of lament as McAffrey finds his prolonged methods of reporting are no longer welcome in the reader-hungry, blogosphere world of modern journalism. It’s a concept Macdonald nurtures throughout the feature, spotlighting the combustible relationship between McAffrey and Frye as one of tidal newsprint change, though he ultimately sides with the shifty practices and unshowered tenacity of the seasoned, unkempt reporter lifestyle. Perhaps this guarantees that “State of Play” will receive a gushing review from any critic currently working for a newspaper or in the midst of pursuing a journalism degree.
“State of Play” doesn’t always trust its own instincts, leaving sections of the film absurdly overcooked to drive easily telegraphed plot points home; nevertheless, the picture still clicks as an eager suspense piece, offering a smattering of proper armrest-gripping moments and mouth-agape revelations to stand itself upright and deliver the goods.