There has probably never been a better time to appeal to nostalgia when telling a story that involves newspapers: they’re almost gone, but not so gone that we aren’t still sad about the passing. But it’s not only its character as a good-ol’-days journalism movie that makes State of Play consistently exhilarating. Adapted from a 2003 British television series that followed a reporter and a Member of Parliament, this condensed version is reworked as a throwback to vintage American political dramas, with the kind of all-around restraint that would have made modern thrillers like Russell Crowe’s last film, Body of Lies, more compelling. Rather than revel in car chases or shootouts, State of Play employs a powerful lead character, a complex narrative, and well-disguised twists, to keep the its pace throttled.
That front-and-center star is wavy-haired Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), who keeps to his salty self at the fictional Washington Globe, where the ship is sinking and new kids in the newsroom like Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) only know how to blurt their opinions online. As the movie opens, a pizza delivery guy is senselessly gunned down in a dank alley and, the very next morning, a pretty red-haired girl seems to throw herself in front of a train on the D.C. Metro. The deaths turn out to be connected to McAffey’s old college roommate Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), now a crusading, pretty-boy congressman with his share of enemies and secrets. Thus McAffey begins investigating a story that could make or break his best friend, an interesting inversion of the usual journalist-pursues-justice plot: this time, the truth-seeking reporter trying to prove someone innocent.
There are all kinds of things wrong with the basic setup: a huge, multinational corporation is using its deep-reaching tentacles to get the government to “privatize” national security, and one rising congressional star is out to bring them down. McAffrey’s editor (Helen Mirren) knows about his relationship to the man he’s covering, but isn’t interested in the blatant conflict of interest. (She also isn’t interested in getting a huge, juicy story-unlikely for someone who’s desperate to prove her paper can still reel in the big ones.) McAffrey and Collins have an odd, underdeveloped relationship that never gets passed its confusing implausibility. But if you love the raw exhilaration of a either political or journalistic scandal-State of Play has loads of both-these plot quibbles won’t enter your head until a good while later.
Not to gloss over its excellent pacing, competent screenplay, and beautiful use of a huge number of D.C. locations, but State of Play is carried by its performers, particularly the rotund, crotchety Crowe. He delivers the callous law-breaking and editor-bluffing like a seasoned pro, and despite plowing across a number of journalistic boundaries along the way, his ethics finally come through to make sure we end up mostly liking him. Affleck’s blank attractiveness is so like the young Washington type that no one will notice the fact that he wasn’t doing a whole lot of acting. The perfectly-cast Jason Bateman’s brief, shocking turn as a sleazeball PR playboy is a thing to behold. The only weak link is the colossally talented Helen Mirren, who sadly is not given much to do beyond yell in her classy British accent about deadlines and pout when they keep getting pushed back.
State of Play‘s blatant, pervasive moralizing about “real news” will certainly be the talk of the town for the next week or so, but, after an initial wave of emotion for a disappearing profession that I will probably never get to really experience, it failed to convince me that the sinking city newspaper is something we should mourn. Della’s bringing-it-all-home platitude (“I figured when people read a story like this, they should get some ink on their fingers”) is, when you dissolve the sucrose, so vapid that it’s in no danger of ever being uttered by a real person. McAffrey’s digs at the online staff-“I figured we should get a few facts into the mix”-echo the denial of aging reporters everywhere, but we get the distinct impression that such rantings are the movie’s editorial position.
At every step, this movie takes the easy route by glamorizing the old; the really courageous journalism movie will be the one that puts this story’s wrenching level of excitement into a setting that’s true to the times. A realistic, non-sentimental take on the state of journalism could only have made State of Play more wonderfully intense, but who’s cheap enough to begrudge newspapers one last cinematic hurrah?
This article originally appeared on Patrol, a daily web magazine that covers the arts, culture, and politics in New York City.