In “State of Play,” the latest addition to the long list of films about politically tilted conspiracies and the rigorous journalists who uncover them, the twists come fast and furious and the crackling dialogue alone generates enough suspense to easily cover the two hours. Yet somehow, this breezily superficial movie hits a timely and strangely nostalgic note about the decay of print journalism.
Russell Crowe stars as Cal McAffrey, a scruffy veteran reporter for “The Washington Globe.” With his almost beautifully messy desk and drastically out of date computer, McAffrey feels dropped from a different era of journalists, like someone straight out of “All the President’s Men.”
Crowe, giving one of his most invigorating and well-conceived performances of late, lays on the collected gruff and knows how to slant his inflection and cock his head just the right way to pull off an embodiment of sleazy-if-morally-upright journalist with flair and ease.
Rachel McAdams co-stars as Della Frye, the paper’s head online columnist. McAdams brings charm and strength to the role, and her blog-centered reporting contrasts terrifically with Crowe.
As the two are gradually forced to work together to figure out the truth behind the murder of a prominent young Congressman’s (Ben Affleck) aide, it becomes clear “State of Play” isn’t so much about uncovering the seeds of conspiracy, but reconciling the difference between Cal’s “old media” and Della’s “new media.”
That in the film the “Globe” has recently been re-acquired by a media conglomerate and is facing collapse only furthers the reflection of the media’s present state.
That two of the film’s three screenwriters are Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton,” “Duplicity”) and Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass,” “Breach”) should come as no surprise. Adapting the six-part 2003 BBC miniseries, the writers use their keen sense of structural complexity to deliver a lean, labyrinthine film without much bulky excess.
The wheels on “State of Play” turn ridiculously fast, and it conveys a wealth of information with skillful economy. Only in its final act does it become a bit too “twist-obsessed,” perhaps foregoing a sliver of deeper meaning for one more big bang reversal.
Nevertheless, the negotiation between lived-in characters and constantly evolving plot is met with balanced nods to the murky waters of journalism and politics.
Jeff Daniels, as a smarmy political party leader, makes the best of a few small scenes, giving well-nuanced hints at his possible entanglements. And Jason Bateman, as a greasy fixer, devours his dialogue in a terrific and riotously funny scene-stealing turn.
Director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) goes for an aesthetic that always skirts with verisimilitude. Director of photography Rodrigo Prieto incorporates lots of great Steadicam shots for following characters around locations quickly, with editor Justine Wright generating suspense by pushing each scene headlong into the next.
“State of Play” is deliciously satisfying material that shoulders propulsive plotting and manages to invest some significant contemplation on the media’s future.
By choosing a set of themes so resonate to the recent rapidity of media change, the film reaches for more than a brainy springtime diversion. For all its minor faults, it’s a pretty convincing pitch for the power of the printed word.