|FUN AND GAMES IN THE NEWSROOM
“State of Play” is an old-fashioned thriller that has lots of tension and not one car chase. The movie in fact opens with a foot chase, and we're quickly reminded how scary it is when somebody is running for his life.
The quarry in this case doesn't make it; nor does the only witness, a guy delivering pizzas on a bicycle. But we get a good look at the perp, and we promise ourselves we won't mess with this guy.
About two-thirds of the way into the movie Russell Crowe runs up against this same guy and realizes who he is, and it's great to watch the color, and probably other things, drain out of Crowe as he tries to make cheerful banter with the person he knows will probably kill him.
“State of Play” is actually a newspaper movie, with Crowe as Cal McAffrey, the scruffy, hard-drinkin', incorruptible investigative reporter; Rachel McAdams as Della, the callow cub reporter, this time a political gossip blogger; and Helen Mirren as the tough-as-nails editor.
The paper is called the Washington Globe, and it's in DC, so were all set for a revelation of Nasty Stuff going on in the Corridors of Power. In fact, the movie sometimes feels eerily like a remake of “All the President's Men,” down to the prominence of offices in the Watergate.
But while Woodward and Bernstein were sleuthing the ham-fisted espionage of a bunch of sleaze-balls, Cal is on the trail of a super-dangerous high-level conspiracy that could lead to a military take-over of the US through the privatization of Homeland Security. The villainous crew is called PointCorp, a private security contractor that has made billions in Iraq, and stands to make even more billions if it can control the US. “It's the Muslim Terror Gold Rush,” says one character.
One uncorrupted congressman is investigating the firm: Stephen Collins, played by Ben Affleck with a fair amount of stolid confidence, which means he didn't actually make me cringe.
Collins's chief researcher into the conspiracy, a winsome redhead, dies under the wheels of a DC Metro train, and soon the ugly truth comes out: she and her boss were working on each other's urgency clauses in extraordinary sessions, possibly with the help of the minority whip. Her death is soon treated as a suicide, and this naturally discredits the congressman, who asks for help from his best pal, who just happens to be Cal the Reporter.
When Cal starts investigating the aide's death, he unearths connections to the two earlier murders, and with Della's reluctant help he starts following the threads that lead into a real twist. Along the way he teaches her Reporterly Wisdom, such as never to print a piece of easy gossip if it could lead to a big story, and always to keep a bottle of whiskey in the bottom drawer of your desk.
Oh, and the paper has just been bought by a soulless Corporation, so we get some meditations on the precarious position of print journalism, and how the world will go to hell if the papers die out and leave nobody to keep an eye on the politicians, which is an apothegm I actually sort of believe in.
While “Duplicity,” the most recent thriller, was played for laughs in the world of cosmetics, “State of Play” is played for keeps, and even if the twists become too frequent and less plausible, they still keep the tension ratcheted to a fairly high level.
Which is not to say there is no comic relief: witness Jason Bateman as a publicist who takes sleaze to new depths; and of course Mirren, who is a treat to listen to as she spits out her terse commands.
Crowe manages to carry the movie by making Cal a cheerful and likable slob who just happens to have the professional smarts to unravel all the twists right to the end. In fact if this movie has a flaw, and it has a few, the big one is the final twist, which just goes too far and topples over into wretched, and preposterous, excess.
But it's still a great reporter movie, and might, unfortunately, end up being a nostalgic look back at what newspapers used to be.