State of Play is an ambitious project which, at times, gets away from director Kevin Macdonald. The script was worked on by the men who gave us Michael Clayton, Lions for Lambs, and Flightplan. And, for better or worse, you can see each writer’s stamp on the film, meaning at times it becomes both too preachy and too focused on “getting us” with unexpected twists. To be fair, many aspects of the film work well and it’s an enjoyable, and even somewhat smart, thriller which has something to say about the state of both journalism and politics.
Cal McAffey (Russell Crowe) is a reporter’s reporter, that dying breed your more likely to find in a movie like this than an actually newspaper office, at least these days. He’s a throwback, the last of the old guard focused on finding the truth of a story and bringing it into light. His stark worldview is encroached on by a sassy young blogger (Rachel McAdams) who can put out several tasty tidbits a day, an editor (Helen Mirren) pressured to make the paper more commercially viable, and a breaking scandal involving the death of an assistant to a golden boy politician (Ben Affleck) who just happens to be Cal’s former college roommate.
The film takes more than its share of twists and turns and when it’s focused on the a journalist’s search for the truth these work well. However, the film doesn’t know when to stop and simply trust the story which has been crafted. Although the film’s final twist still works, it lessens the impact of the story which we’ve watched being slowly put together by this grizzled old newsman and spunky nubile bloggger, and it makes too big a shift in the focus of the film for no real purpose except to try and pull the rug out from underneath the audience and yell “Gotcha!”
Crowe is great as always, and his character, much like the newsroom and world he inhabits, feel quite real (if a bit nostalgic for today’s world). It’s sad to think that this type of old school journalism is disappearing. McAdams is fresh, funny, and finally cast in a movie I want to see more than once. The relationship between the two slowly grows and, thankfully, stays away from an unnecessary and distracting pysical relationship between the two.
The film contains many smaller roles some of which are red herrings, others of which grow in importance. Jason Bateman and Jeff Daniels stand out in small roles, but it’s Ben Affleck and Robin Wright Penn, as a politician and wife under scrutiny of the public eye, who shine. Two of my favorite scenes involve Crowe and Wright Penn delving into their past relationship. The first, taking place in a crowded D.C. bar is all about things unsaid, and the second, which takes place in Cal’s apartment, tells you everything you need to know about who this character is and how he prioritizes his life. There are other moments in the film I wish were as well crafted and understated.
State of Play isn’t a great film, though it does have some very strong moments and is definitely worth checking out. When the film stays centered on unraveling a mystery and focusing on the life of a reporter who searches for the truth, sometimes at great personal cost, it works well. I could have done with a little less preaching from Affleck’s character, and the last major plot twist which felt too gimmicky for my tastes.