Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play was not a movie I was particularly looking forward to watching. And no, that had nothing to do with a reverence for the 2003 BBC miniseries on which it was based, because I’ve never seen that. It probably had something to do with my general inability to find Ben Affleck a terribly persuasive actor (nor did I find him especially so here). However, it was mostly due to the sense that this had all the earmarks of a completely Hollywoodized product. And had the film followed the original plan of starring Brad Pitt and being directed by Edward Zwick, my fears would almost certainly have been realized. Try as I may, I cannot imagine liking this movie had that happened.
As it stands, State of Play is an old-fashioned political thriller from the 1970s school of political thrillers. It’s a solid, intense, entertaining work that dares to ask its viewers to think while they watch. (If you think that’s not daring, just check out the IMDb message boards and see the folks thereon trying to figure out the film’s ending.) At bottom, it’s a movie made by and for people who actually like good dialogue, thrillers with characters who at least offer the illusion of real people, and material that manages to hide a degree of weightiness inside its entertainment value. That the film has Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn, Jeff Daniels and Jason Bateman in its cast helps all those things. And while he doesn’t especially add to the proceedings, neither does Affleck seriously undermine them.
The plot is a labyrinthian affair involving persons in high places who may or may not be responsible for all manner of things, and who are all somehow interconnected in that manner beloved of conspiracy theorists and screenwriters. The movie starts with the murder of a sneak thief and the attempted murder of a witness. This is soon followed by the death of the head researcher, Sonia Baker (TV actress Maria Thayer), in the employ of a congressman, Stephen Collins (Affleck), out to unmask the wrongdoings of a company that supplies mercenary soldiers. Though whether she died in an accident, committed suicide or was murdered is open to question. A connection between the cases surfaces when Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Crowe) discovers Sonia’s phone number on the cell phone of the murdered sneak thief. That Cal just happens to be the old college roommate of Congressman Collins ties him to the case personally.
Those personal connections cause the paper’s new hotshot blogger, Della Frye (McAdams), to suspect that McAffrey might be interested in covering up for his old friend after Collins is revealed to have been having an affair with the researcher. That there’s also a natural antipathy between the old-school print reporter and the up-and-coming blogger doesn’t help matters, though the two finally form an alliance, albeit not a wholly easy one. Complications and revelations crop up constantly to drive the story forward and keep the viewer guessing at just who is or isn’t trustworthy—and to what extent.
In many ways, this is formulaic stuff, yes. The grudging friendship that grows between the veteran reporter and the dewy-eyed cub is as old as the shabbiest 1940s B movie. The love/hate relationship between the star reporter and the no-nonsense editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), is even older. Putting some new spins on it—the blogger aspect, the editor fighting to keep the print medium viable—adds some relevance, but doesn’t change the essentials. The fact is it’s a formula that has worked for as long as there have been newspaper dramas. Add in clever dialogue, smart direction and terrific actors, and it works as well as it ever did. That’s certainly the case here, where the film is also housed in a story of sufficient complexity that a traditional formula actually helps offer something to hold onto.
Similarly, the political scandal/corruption aspects are hardly new, but they, too, work because they seem so relevant to our paranoid age. No degree of duplicity that we see seems far-fetched. If anything, it seems just a little too reasonable. In fact, if anything about the film feels far-fetched, it’s the relative ease with which a vast conspiracy can be brought down—or at least badly wounded. Maybe that plays a little too much to our hopes, but it still makes for good drama. And in the end, that’s what State of Play is: a good drama that almost passes for great drama on the strength of its performances and the cleverness of its script. Rated PG-13 for some violence, language, including sexual references, and brief drug content.