By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009
A river runs through "State of Play," a crisp, classy political thriller set in Washington, D.C. And no, it's not the Potomac, or even the Anacostia. Rather, it's a burbling stream of sentimental nostalgia for the old ways -- in politics, journalism and even filmmaking -- that make an otherwise routine procedural something of modest but no less significant value.
To start with, "State of Play," which has been adapted from the hit BBC miniseries, features some wonderful actors working at the very top of their game -- Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren and Robin Wright Penn, to name a few. Amid such thespian throw-weight, Ben Affleck stands out like a particularly large, tender thumb, although it could be argued that his wooden performance is ironically well-suited to his character, a speechifying, self-righteous politician on the rise.
Taking some cues from such recent headline makers as the Chandra Levy case and Blackwater, not to mention its generic ur-text "All the President's Men," "State of Play" plays politicians and journalists against each other in a continually shifting game of back-scratching and back-stabbing. Rep. Stephen Collins (Affleck), the ambitious new hope for his unnamed party, is caught up in a scandal that may or may not have anything to do with a string of murders being investigated by the scruffy, shambling Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Crowe). Caught in the middle is a plucky young Globe blogger played by Rachel McAdams, who teams with McAffrey to get to the bottom of events that spin more and more improbably out of control. (Even her name has spunk: Della Frye, surely meant to invoke such classic sleuthy heroines as Brenda Starr, Della Street and Lois Lane.)
As directed by Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") and written by Tony Gilroy, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Billy Ray, the movie plays out with an assured, un-hysterical tone and smooth visual style that harks back to thrillers before they all looked as if they were shot in a broom closet and edited in a blender. (It bears noting that Gilroy and Ray are responsible for two of the best thrillers to come down the pike in recent years: "Michael Clayton" and "Shattered Glass," respectively.)
Admittedly, "State of Play's" plot gets more rickety and risible as time goes on, and when Jason Bateman arrives on the scene as a skittery PR man, the entire enterprise threatens to go off the rails in a paroxysm of weird tonal shifts. But Macdonald manages to keep it together, with a combination of stylistic restraint and the terrific cast he's assembled.
Crowe -- looking appropriately puffy and sallow -- plays a hard-bitten reporter with a convincing combination of sarcasm and passion. He and McAdams -- who brings just the right combination of shrewdness and doe-eyed naivete to her role as an ambitious newbie -- give their banter an easy, spontaneous ring of truth. Wright Penn, who has recently turned so many brief moments into astonishingly revealing character studies, makes the most of yet another supporting role, this time turning the trope of the long-suffering political wife on its head -- a head, by the way, that rocks way more shaggy layers than the typical helmet-coiffed political wife, long-suffering or not.
The hardest part of any thriller is the endgame, which in "State of Play" concludes in an overheated hail of bullets and sheer preposterousness. But by that time, the filmmakers have created such a convincing, fully realized world that the context itself takes on a vivid life of its own. A few distracting D.C. geographical boo-boos notwithstanding (why would someone living in Adams Morgan take the Metro at Rosslyn?), "State of Play" gets an amazing amount right about its place and time. As has been reported in these pages, the cast and crew of "State of Play" spent a good deal of time researching the habits and habitat of daily journalists. The result is that Macdonald has not only captured the look and feel of daily journalism -- from the size of the reporters' notebooks to the colorfully random detritus that covers their desks -- but he's also captured the anxious gestalt of the era in which it is being irrevocably transformed.
Signs of technological change are everywhere in "State of Play," which ultimately seems less interested in the intricacies of plot than with the romance of an almost-bygone medium. The Globe has just been sold to a media conglomerate with a lively interest in quarterly profits, and it's in the throes of a redesign process that will look eerily familiar to loyal newsprint readers (yes, both of you). Throughout the movie, tensions between print and online journalism and the Web erupt into little turf fights or larger arguments about ethics. "She's hungry, she's cheap and she churns out copy every hour," Mirren's editor says to McAffrey at one point, reminding him how utterly dispensable his once-mighty pen has become.
"State of Play's" final montage, a loving valentine to old-fashioned newspapering, with its clanging presses and heaving, beeping trucks, plays like a sepia-toned anthropological documentary about a vanishing indigenous people. But, at least for members of that bloodied and battered tribe, it's impossible not to be touched. In some distant future, when newsprint has long disappeared and people get their news and movies by way of a biologically embedded chip, at least they'll know that attention, once, was paid. On behalf of ink-stained wretches everywhere: Thanks for caring, guys!