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Just Add Watergate: Political conspiracy thriller is paint-by-numbers, but effective 

click to enlarge Journalists? They still have those?
  • Journalists? They still have those?
Journalists? They still have those?
Think of all the things that people have seen with great repetition in their lives but for which we continue to crane our necks to glimpse again and again: Sunrises, sunsets, windstorms, the aftermath of car crashes, Seth Rogen movies, etc. In a way, State of Play is the film version of a sunrise - or at least a good morning coffee. We know precisely what we're being fed, and that's why we keep coming back for more.

That being said, State of Play throws enough twists around to give this daily cup of Joe a pleasant aroma. Adapted from a BBC television series of the same name, the film stars Ben Affleck as Stephen Collins, a congressman with a bright future whose office assistant dies under bizarre circumstances. Russell Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, a streetwise journalist and old friend of the congressman, who begins investigating the aide's death and its connection to the murders of two other people. Things get murky when it turns out the married Collins and the assistant were having an affair. Still murkier is that Collins is skewering a private defense contractor at a congressional hearing, and the defense contractor doesn't like it one bit. Billions in no-bid contracts could be lost. And when billions are at stake, lives aren't worth much, so people get killed. Rinse and repeat, right?

Apply the brakes. The interplay between Crowe's throwback journalist for the fictional Washington Globe, and the doe-eyed Rachel McAdams (Red Eye, Wedding Crashers) as a Globe blogger, Della Frye, is the more compelling conflict in the film. McAffrey personifies hardscrabble, manual journalism. He sports a beer-gut, out-dated hairstyle, and a polished turd for an automobile (the latter lampooned with hilarious vigor by the scene-stealing Jason Batemen as a PR guy with a secret). Della is the whipper snapper who churns out TMZ-style copy online. And boy howdy, does McAffrey have a thing or two to teach Frye about investigative journalism.

Depending on how you view the world (For example, are you reading this review online, or did you pick up a paper copy of the Source today?), you may be rooting for the resourceful, wizened McAffrey to crack the case and strike a blow for print media. Or, you may be saying to yourself, "OMG! Like, Internet bloggers aren't totally stupid just 'cuz they put their stories online. WTF?" Not that I'm making a judgment one way or the other.

The performances in the film are all solid, with Helen Mirren adding a nice turn as the saucy, money-wise editor, who serves as foil to Crowe's character. McAdams never makes a film worse, but her Della Frye was a tad more Nancy Drew than Carl Bernstein. Affleck is serviceable as the congressman, but it's Crowe (underappreciated, I think, due to his off-screen antics) who gives the film personality from the get-go.

The whodunit aspect of the film lost my interest about halfway through, and I was more focused on pondering how the heck this ancient form of media can compete with the propaganda we're all bombarded with from 24-hour cable news and online, up-to-the-second scoops. While the film's twist ending makes few high-brow judgments about one end of the political spectrum versus the other, the verdict seemed unambiguous with regard to print journalism. The closing credits had Creedence's John Fogarty bellowing a eulogy of sorts as the paper version of the Globe rolled off the presses: "Put a candle in the window/Long as I can see the light."

While not a groundbreaking thriller, State of Play deserves extra props for adding layers to what could have been a sleepwalk of a film.

State of Play ★★★✩✩
Starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren and Rachel McAdams. Directed by Kevin MacDonald. Rated PG-13.


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