Kevin Macdonald's Washington thriller is a bellows designed to puff up the most beaten-down reporter's chest. Compressed from the highly regarded BBC miniseries first telecast in 2003, State of Play is an effectively involving journalism-cum-conspiracy yarn with a bang-bang opening and a frantic closer. There are more than a few loose ends left hanging when the case slams shut, but it all makes sense, at least until you have a moment to think about it.
Having replaced Brad Pitt (who reportedly dropped out in a dispute over the script), Russell Crowe heads the high-powered cast as an old-school journo — which is to say, a bearish slob with printer's ink in his veins and whiskey on his breath, introduced piloting his jalopy through D.C. traffic to some blasting Celtic metal. As his foil, Ben Affleck plays an eminently presentable congressman, reform-minded but morally compromised, whose young research assistant dies in suspicious circumstances under the wheels of the Washington Metro the very morning he's set to open televised hearings into the doings of a Blackwatery defense-contracting megalith. Affleck walks tearfully off the Hill and arrives at Crowe's hovel, blubbering that the reporter is the only friend he's got. Seems unlikely, but it turns out that the two were college roommates — a relationship complicated by a shared romantic interest in the fellow alum who became the congressman's wife (Robin Wright Penn).
Professional ethics are stretched to the breaking point as conflicts of interest proliferate; the erotic tension gets largely sublimated into Crowe's initially adversarial but ultimately mentoring relationship with the cute young blogger (Rachel McAdams) on his newspaper's political smarm beat. As unrelated murder cases dovetail, Crowe initiates the bright-eyed blogette into the mystery of shoe-leather reporting. It all leads to a vast conspiracy — although the $40 billion that the corporate baddies hope to realize from privatized homeland security seems a bit chintzy compared to the AIG bailout. Indeed, the crusty, seen-it-all editor in chief (Helen Mirren) — who disses Crowe's veteran reporter as a "geezer" and counters his every crazy, brilliant lead with a sniff that "the real story is the sinking of this bloody newspaper" — is singularly unimpressed.
The BBC miniseries had the luxury of character psychology, but for all its interest in the ambivalent state of affairs that exists among politicians, the press, and the minions of P.R. (Jason Bateman in an expertly comic turn), State of Play is mainly an action film. No matter how often friendship complicates the newspaper's ongoing investigation, there's no way that a two-hour movie can plumb the depths of these various emotional entanglements — or the tragic dimension shared by the two protagonists, ruined politician and tormented newshound. Affleck adds a dash of righteousness to his character, but Crowe is the sole justice-fighter. Working a half-step ahead of the curiously compliant cops and faced with Mirren's impossible deadlines, he tosses off the line "Yes, we can" as he hustles from the newsroom to do some extreme investigative reporting — that is, the kind where you get shot at by a source. Typically in an underground parking garage.
Crowe's ink-slinger may successfully push his deadlines to the far side of the International Date Line, but for journalists, the movie's irresistible hook is the death-of-newsprint back story — which comes complete with a utopian vision of a brave new world in which frisky cyber-snoops are eager Girl Fridays to their typewriting seniors. Although the arch-scold Mirren's anxious diatribes seldom fail to mention that the newspaper has just been purchased and is now under cost-conscious management, we never learn this new boss' identity.
State of Play is a deeply nostalgic movie. During the Depression, it might have been played for screwball comedy; 60-something years ago, it could have served as the basis for a private-eye story. Its heart, however, is in the '70s — the days when political conspiracy was hot stuff, investigative reporters strode the Earth like so many grubby colossi, a journalist's greatest allegiance was to follow the story, and the promise of a shared byline was a bond stronger than sex.