Whether you flipped to this review with an ink-smudged finger or you simply opened a new tab, State of Play, a perfectly timed, labyrinthine whodunit from director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) will hit close to home. A smart, edge-of-your-seat thriller that doesn’t just tap into the zeitgeist but hooks up a keg funnel, Play’s nimble, swaggering look at a journalist in over his head and his blogging underling who didn’t realize that getting the scoop is a 24-hour gig, takes on corruption, Blackwater, and no less than the decline of the modern newspaper.
State of Play, based on the BBC miniseries of the same name, begins with a feverish sequence of events in which a man with a briefcase and a pizza-delivery guy are gunned down in cold blood, a beautiful young woman appears to commit suicide by stepping in front of a metro train, and Senate hearings regarding a Blackwater-esque mercenary company are interrupted by a hotshot Congressman (Affleck, tucking in his chin) announcing the woman’s death, punctuated by his genuine, scandal-worthy tears. The fictional Washington Globe’s new gossip blogger (McAdams, in hipster garb) naturally runs with the possibility of an affair, but the Globe’s old-school veteran reporter (schlub-y Crowe), who knows the Congressman well, suspects there’s more to the story. He takes McAdams under his wing, and together they uncover a conspiracy that, as they say, goes all the way to the top.
The above description barely scratches the surface of what’s going on. That the film’s rising tension doesn’t ever detract from the forceful and elegant plot is a credit to everyone involved, from the taut script and direction and lively performances from Crowe, McAdams and Affleck all the way down to inspired turns from supporting players Jason Bateman, Robin Wright Penn, and even a cameo by recent Academy Award nominee Viola Davis.
There is something to be said, however, for the wish-fulfillment on display. Audiences, especially those full of local press, love to see a showy, sloppy reporter doing his job effortlessly and effectively. We love the idea that there are those journalists still out there dedicated enough to getting to the bottom of a story that they’re dodging bullets to find the truth. It almost never happens so dramatically, however, and in that sense State of Play could almost be viewed as porn for the newspaperman, a beat reporter’s beat-off flick in the vein of The Insider or All the President’s Men. Crowe’s performance here, however, might serve as escapism for everyone in a year in which major American cities are suddenly without a daily paper and new plagiarism scandals pop up every week.
State of Play’s closing credits roll during footage of a newspaper plant going through every step of the long, industrial process involved in getting newspapers like this one into your ink-stained hands and the scene’s elegiac tone is bittersweet. It’s a love letter to an antiquated process, creaking and beautiful, like Crowe’s character and his vanishing profession.•