'State of Play" looks like a provocative, '70s-style political thriller, and it's the murder of a young woman -- a rising congressman's mistress -- that drives the narrative.
But it also turns out to be a fond homage to old-school journalism, and it plays like a eulogy for a sadly dying industry. That's especially true of the footage that rolls during the closing credits: the printing, packaging and shipping out of a big-city newspaper. The images may seem mundane, but they also evoke nostalgia for a more optimistic, prosperous time -- especially for those of us who work in this business. And, naturally, we all love movies about ourselves.
Crowe's Cal McAffrey represents the last vestige of this way of life. A veteran reporter for the Washington Globe (standing in for the Post), he drives a beat-up 1990 Saab, crams junk food into his face on the way to a crime scene and even keeps a bottle of whiskey in the drawer of his irreparably messy desk.
But he also happens to be old friends with the politician in question, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who's chairman of the committee overseeing defense spending. Cal's various conflicts of interest -- and the congressman's -- are revealed as the police and the paper compete to investigate the killing.
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Director Kevin MacDonald, who already showed a sure hand in navigating complex plots and intense intrigue with "The Last King of Scotland," moves the story along smoothly through its various twists and turns. (There's probably one too many at the end, but if you've seen the 2003 BBC miniseries that inspired "State of Play," writers Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray have stayed true to the source material.)
He also gets journalism right, which doesn't always happen. Despite the quaint depiction of a packed newsroom bustling with activity, the debates about quick online hits vs. hard-hitting investigations, between selling papers with fluff vs. offering actual substance, feel relevant and real.
Believably disheveled, Crowe loses himself in yet another role -- as always, he's a character actor in a leading man's body -- and he has some fiery exchanges with the always sharp Helen Mirren as the paper's editor. Crowe also has a comfortable chemistry with Rachel McAdams as the young blogger he reluctantly accepts as his partner, and a couple of great scenes with Jason Bateman as a sleazy PR exec who connects several key players. (Functioning as a bad guy is a welcome change from him.)
But he and Affleck never feel like a good fit for each other, and not just in acting ability. The age difference is too distracting and makes it difficult to believe they were college roommates, which is crucial to the plot. Crowe is 45 and looks it; and while Affleck makes sense as a Washington up-and-comer with his generically smooth, vapid appearance, he's 36 and looks it, too.
Robin Wright Penn is also an odd pairing for Affleck as his victimized but dignified wife. She, too, is supposed to have gone to college with Stephen and Cal. At 43, she feels natural with Crowe (and their characters enjoyed a fling in the past, which isn't implausible) but it's hard to accept her as Affleck's wife.
These aren't the things we should be occupying our mind with when there's much meatier stuff to sink our teeth into on screen.