Newspapermen occupy that movie middle ground between detectives and action heroes. They dig up clues, but the clues are hard-won, based on experience and the building up of contacts and sources. The clues are rarely left at the scene of the crime. Newspapermen rarely get into danger, but when they do it's not something they're really prepared or trained for. Coming face-to-face with a deadly killer, Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) can barely make eye contact. Cal doesn't fight or outwit the bad guy; he just runs and hides. It's not important that he try to be a hero. It's more important that he survive to write the story.
Of course, real reporters don't get to solve murders and uncover international corporate conspiracies every day, and that's where Hollywood comes in. The new film State of Play is based on a six-hour BBC mini-series from 2003. I haven't seen the original, but I'd bet that it's much distilled and sped up, and no one is going to argue that the new film is any kind of improvement. But taken on its own, it's probably the best newspaper/journalism movie in years -- perhaps since Shattered Glass (2003) -- even if it falls far short of the purity of All the President's Men (1976). It's also the first movie of its kind to address the inherent feud between sturdy, superior, old-fashioned print reporting, and reckless, inexperienced, sloppy blogging. (Guess which side the movie is on?)
Cal has been on staff for over a decade. He bangs out stories on an old computer. HIs office looks like a real office, and his desk -- by God -- looks like a real desk. His car looks like a real reporter's car, with a pile of old notepaper and crumbled-up wrappers littering his back seat. He doesn't need to worry about passengers. He has no one else in his life, not even a houseplant. His job requires many late nights and loyalty to no one except sources or anyone who can provide information, confirmation or quotes. His best friend is his old college roommate, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), now a U.S. Congressman. Their relationship works: Cal provides good press for Stephen, and Stephen provides stories for Cal. Unfortunately, Stephen's wife (Robin Wright Penn) is caught in the middle. She once slept with Cal and still carries a torch for him, but she sticks to her marriage.
As the movie begins, Cal is working on a story about a double shooting: a junkie/petty thief and a pizza delivery man who happened to be nearby. At the same time, Stephen's top aide, a pretty redhead named Sonia (Maria Thayer) dies under a subway train. At first it appears to be suicide, but it's not long before Cal discovers a connection between all three victims. Cal's acerbic editor (Helen Mirren) puts Cal on the story, along with a young blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams). In the film's margins, the Globe has been purchased by a new corporate entity, and the focus is now on profits rather than news. Della knows the written rules of journalism, but not the unwritten ones; she's there to challenge Cal's methods, while he challenges her right back.
Their digging leads up to a conspiracy involving PointCorp, a private company made up of ex-military men who are making a mint providing muscle and other heavy-hardware services all around the world. (One character warns that their influence is spreading and that they will eventually become a privatized version of Homeland Security.) Stephen is trying to pass a bill to stop them, which -- needless to say -- has its opponents. After that, there are stolen photos, secret meetings, sleazy hotel rooms, more shootings, and lots of drinking (reporters like to drink).
It's no coincidence that one of the film's screenwriters is Billy Ray, who made Shattered Glass, and that another one is Tony Gilroy, who made the brainy thriller Michael Clayton (2007). Their winning combination remains true to the day-to-day details of reporting, but also providing unexpected character depth as well as enough thrills to keep even the slowest audience members awake. The director is Kevin Macdonald, who knows a thing or two about journalism, having made several documentaries and won an Oscar in 2000 (for One Day in September). Unfortunately, none of these talents can save the movie's last ten minutes, which is more or less a cheap epilogue to the "thriller" portion of the movie, relying on stale gimmicks and betraying all the smart behavior that has gone on up to then.
Up to then, the 122-minute State of Play moves well, with grace and intelligence as well as a measure of scrappiness and a sense of working by the seat of one's pants. The entire cast steps up, forming nicely rounded characters, even if they only get a few minutes of screen time. Mirren is especially good, though Jason Bateman's comic performance as a bitchy source is a bit misplaced. Crowe once again proves why he's one of the top-rated actors in the world, using warmth and restraint as his power (no more of that empty brooding that characterized his earlier work). He knows when to hold back and when to go full bore -- just like a reporter.