The struggle between getting the story right and getting it first is at the heart of “State of Play,” a journalistic thriller starring Russell Crowe, that’s now in theaters. In a time when daily newspapers are going out of business or shifting to online editions only, I wish the movie had explored and wrestled with that struggle in greater detail.
When the closing credits rolled and I learned that the movie was based on a BBC television series, I wondered if it may have suffered from trying to squeeze too much of the original series into two hours and seven minutes. Still, it’s an entertaining thriller that holds your attention even though it does start to drag in the second half. One particularly taut edge-of-your-seat scene pits Crowe’s character, Cal McAffrey, against a hired assassin in a cat-and-mouse game in a hotel parking garage.
The movie opens with the double murder of a purse snatcher and a pizza-delivery man, who witnesses the first murder when he pedals by on his bicycle at the wrong time. As McAffrey, Crowe is a reporter who shows up the next morning to cover the crime. He’s an old-school journalist who’s been toiling away at the Washington Globe for 15 years. McAffrey finds his stories the old-fashioned way, by cultivating relationships with key sources, working the phones and knocking on doors.
That same morning, the lead researcher for Sen. Stephen Collins is killed in a subway accident, an apparent suicide victim who had been having an affair with the senator, played by Ben Affleck. The media pounces on the scandal when Collins breaks down in tears at the opening of a congressional hearing. One of those eager to cover the scandal is Della Frye, played by Rachel McAdams, who runs the Globe’s new political blog. She learns that McAffrey and Collins were college roommates, so she questions the veteran journalist in hope of uncovering another juicy tidbit for the blog.
Soon, the two journalists are working together on the story, and McAffrey discovers the double murder and suicide have a connection. As they investigate, all the signs lead to PointCorps, a private security firm seeking some lucrative contracts from the federal government. PointCorps, it turns out, was the focus of the congressional hearing, and Collins had been preparing some tough questions about the firm’s overseas activities on behalf of the government. With the media spotlight now shining on him so brightly, Collins is advised by Rep. George Fergus, played by Jeff Daniels, to take a lower profile in the hearing.
“State of Play” includes some nice scenes that speak to the state of print journalism, including one where McAffrey and Frye are chewed out by their editor, played by Helen Mirren, when she learns the reporters held back a salacious but questionable piece of news, causing the Globe to get scooped by its rival. Under pressure from the newspaper’s new owners to sell more papers, Mirren scolds them for keeping the detail from her, pointing out it doesn’t matter if the information is true. The newspaper can print the accusation one day, and the senator’s denial the next day – and sell plenty of papers on both days.
Crowe’s character is one of the weaknesses in the film. While Crowe is a solid actor, the character of the veteran journalist doesn’t change during his journey through the film. In that regard, he seems more like the two-dimensional hero of any variety of summer action movies about to hit the theaters. His character’s always right when he confronts his editor, the blogging reporter, the senator, the police and so on. His hunches are always on the money.
As far as the get-it-right vs. get-it-first confrontation between the two journalists is concerned, it doesn’t last long. McAdams’ character abandons her approach rather quickly – although she raises an occasional protest now and then – to start making calls and having doors slammed in her face as she ferrets out the truth. It would have been interesting to see these two viewpoints at odds a while longer. When all is said and done, however, “State of Play” is an engaging thriller with an interesting plot twist or two along the way and some thought-provoking scenes on the state of print journalism.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, language including sexual references and brief drug content.
Director: Kevin MacDonald
Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray
Cast: Russell Crowe: Cal McAffrey; Ben Affleck: Stephen Collins; Rachel McAdams: Della Frye; Helen Mirren: Cameron Lynne; Robin Wright Penn: Anne Collins; Jason Bateman: Dominic Foy; Jeff Daniels: Rep. George Fergus.
The movie’s official web site is here.
Michael Leathers the copy editor for EthicsDaily.com and the former editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.