The knotty conspiracy thriller State of Play closes with a montage depicting the physical process of printing a newspaper, set to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long as I Can See the Light,” while the final credits play out. It’s a loving tribute to the dying print medium that the movie does its best to prop up, forwarding the case that old-fashioned investigative journalism, printed on newsprint, is the only institution capable of bringing down ridiculously convoluted movie conspiracies. By the third act, even the hot young blogger character (yes, this movie has a hot young blogger character) is swooning over the idea of getting ink on her fingers.
So old-school journalists should be elated, but despite nods to media consolidation and the Internet takeover, State of Play is as traditional a thriller as can be, its story of dirty politics and criminal cover-ups given only the thinnest of modernized face-lifts. That’s not, by and large, a bad thing, though, as State (based on a 2003 BBC miniseries) emulates only the best in paranoid political mysteries, both vintage and current.
As is usually the case, it starts with a seemingly random crime. Here, it’s two crimes, actually: A young junkie is gunned down in an alley, the shooter also taking out a pizza-delivery guy who happens to witness the killing; and a pretty female congressional staffer is killed by a train in what first appears to be suicide. Grizzled veteran Washington, D.C., reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is assigned to cover the first crime, while the aforementioned fetching blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), investigates the dead aide and the up-and-coming congressman (Ben Affleck) to whom she was more than just a colleague.
Inevitably, the two stories collide, and the old-media curmudgeon (at least his technophobia has been updated so that he uses a 16-year-old computer rather than a typewriter) and the new-media go-getter team up to solve the mystery, expose corruption and save journalism, or so the movie would have you believe. State is so packed with suspenseful sequences, whiplash-inducing plot twists and current-events buzzwords that it’s easy to miss the fact that it’s not actually about anything, but that’s okay, at least for most of the time.
Director Kevin Macdonald, who helmed the more factual but also more sensationalistic The Last King of Scotland, has a murderer’s row of political-thriller screenwriters at his disposal—Tony Gilroy (the Bourne series, Michael Clayton), Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Breach), Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom)—and he puts them to good use, diving right into a plot thicket involving Cal’s personal ties to Affleck’s suspect Rep. Stephen Collins and the questionable dealings of a private defense contractor with a possible motive to off Collins’ aide.
It all hums along well for the first hour or so, with an excellent supporting cast that includes Helen Mirren as Cal and Della’s ball-busting editor, Jeff Daniels as a weaselly senior congressman and Jason Bateman as a smarmy publicist. Crowe is appropriately haggard, and McAdams appropriately fresh-faced, although Affleck ends up a little stiff as a man constantly over-protesting his moral rectitude. As the twists pile up, though, the movie gets a little lost in its drive to add just one more chase scene or shoot-out or shocking reversal, and not even a brilliant lead and an eye-catching headline can make it all come together.