Reporter on the case in juicy D.C. thriller

Russell Crowe plays reporter Cal McAffrey at the twilight of newspaper idealism, when murder mystery and political scandal intersect.
Russell Crowe plays reporter Cal McAffrey at the twilight of newspaper idealism, when murder mystery and political scandal intersect.
Posted: April 17, 2009

Russell Crowe as a crusading reporter at a sinking broadsheet lately acquired by a multinational corporation. Ben Affleck as a rising politician crusading against a Halliburton-like company when his staffer (and secret lover) ends up in front of a subway train.

Like their workplaces, Cal McAffrey (Crowe) is rumpled as yesterday's paper and Rep. Stephen Collins (Affleck) polished as the marble corridors of Congress.

The journo and the pol, once college roommates, play hide-and-seek in State of Play, an enthralling Washington thriller where murder mystery and political scandal intersect.

Adapted from the 2003 BBC mini-series of the same name, the lightning-paced and twisty whodunit was compressed and Americanized by three screenwriters, among them Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), and deftly directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland).

Macdonald's nocturne, evocatively photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, captures the twilight of idealism and that of the newspaper industry at the dawn of the Twitterverse.

Battered and antiquated as the 1990 Saab he drives, McAffrey is headed toward professional obsolescence. Under new management, and to the exasperation of editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), the Washington Globe allocates resources to the online operation and beggars the print side.

Never mind that Cal knows how everyone in the District from the medical examiner to the police lieutenant takes his coffee. Never mind that these sources give Cal the substantive story - not just what happened, but how and why it did. Never mind that Cal's as good at police work as many of the detectives on the force.

New management prefers the quick-hit, gossipy blog of Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) to Cal's labor-intensive reporting. Della's sources tell her that the married Rep. Collins was sleeping with his late intern, a fact that Cal - for reasons obvious and less so, blind to his former roommate's flaws - fails to get.

Working from a script that provides an insider's look into how the newsroom and Congress work, Macdonald compares institutions where cronyism and careerism are not strangers. The result is a tasty intrigue, as juicy as it is chewy, about private morals, public responsibility, and the privatizing of Homeland Security.

What the performances lack in nuance, they make up for in crackle.

While Crowe always looks like he's carrying the burden of Atlas on his beefy shoulders, here he looks like he's having a good time. He has an easy rapport with McAdams and her dimples, and as nonromantic coworkers - can a crusty old reporter and a sassy newbie blogger share a byline? - the two have warmer chemistry than most romantic comedy costars.

Likewise Affleck, as the possibly framed congressman, and Robin Wright Penn as his wronged wife are quite effective. And Mirren brings her formidable presence to the role of the newspaper editor battling deadlines and commercial considerations, cutting coverage to fit this week's dwindling budget.

Acting-wise, the showstopper is Jason Bateman, with a diabolically entertaining turn as a smarmy PR man remarkably free with confidential information.

Given characters such as Bateman's, screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Billy Ray, and Gilroy reliably provide a narrative hairpin turn every five minutes.

For those of a certain age, it's hard not to think of State of Play, in which a pair of crusading journalists solve a mystery damaging to the republic, as the bookend to All the President's Men.

The journalist in me loved State of Play. The moviegoer in me even more so.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/

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