At first glance, “State of Play has the makings of a typical run-of-the-mill high stakes edge-of-your-seat thriller infused with a good measure of political intrigue, scandal and Washington melodrama.
A young female aide to influential congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) meets a gruesome death just as he begins investigating a powerful security firm for misconduct in the Iraq war.
The media hounds set upon Collins when he inadvertently reveals a sexual relationship with his aide and he turns to his former roommate and current crack investigative reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) for the fictitious Washington Globe for solace and advice.
But Crowe feels the pricking of his investigative instincts and he suspects something is awry in the aide’s death.
Armed with a mighty pen and trusted notepad, Crowe is dispatched by his editor to infiltrate the sleazy underbelly of the Washington politicos to crack the case. Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a spunky cub reporter, tags along reminding McAffrey of the ethics of journalism as they charge headfirst into the world of conspiracy theories, corporate cover-ups and capital corruption.
Simple enough, right?
Perhaps, if this were a film set in 1984; however, screenplay writers Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy (of the “Bourne Ultimatum and “Michael Clayton fame), and Billy Ray set this remake of a British television mini-series in the midst of the current media upheaval in which major news companies are being transformed – or euthanized – thanks to a technological revolution in much the same way the Gutenberg press changed our history forever.
The writers have created a not so subliminal message that we are on the cusp of a clash of ideals between old and new media.
In the first 15 minutes of the film, the audience learns that The Washington Globe has been bought by a group of investors interested in the bottom line: profit.
Helen Mirren plays the fanatical editor-in-chief Cameron Lynne who keeps reminding her staff that she is “interested in sales, not discretion. Audiences have long criticized mainstream media for having become too corporate; often ignoring the craft of journalism itself, and Lynne seems to confirm that suspicion.
Lynne keeps saying the Globe is “sinking, which is an allusion to the current state of affairs for many global newspapers who were hit so profoundly by the financial crisis that they have been forced to shut down or move their operations online.
And this is where conventional, print media clashes with the electronic world of blogs, Twitter, and YouTube.
Crowe’s McAffrey, scruffy-looking, tired, brazen and perhaps in need of a shower, epitomizes the older generation of print journalists – the ones who idealized about uncovering another Watergate. His cohort – and rival – McAdams’s Frye is young and ambitious, looking for the next big scoop to put on her “news blog.
McAffrey discredits the value of the blog itself and even patronizes Frye to get her “facts straight the next time you decide to upchuck online.
His rebuke – calling new media “bloodsuckers and bloggers – is emblematic of the distrust many hardcore 40+ journalists have for the blog as a media tool.
However, as the film progresses, McAffrey learns how to incorporate new media into old-style investigative journalism that Woodward and Bernstein would have been proud of.
Frye is no longer a cub reporter; she absorbs the finer traditions of print media and Crowe’s soliloquy that “the people know the difference between news and bulls**t.
In the final segments of the film, the audience learns that print is not dead.
However, the performance of some of the cast is very much in need of resuscitation. Affleck is bland, portraying neither the charisma nor character required by a congressman – one wonders who could have possibly voted him into office.
Mirren, perhaps too fazed by her trophies, has opted for the William Shatner method – over-emphasize every sentence to the point where I just wanted to throw my popcorn in her face.
Crowe is somewhat mediocre, exhibiting brilliance every now and then like a dormant volcano erupting while McAdams seems to know she has a promising acting career ahead of her.
Justin Bateman in a supporting role, surprisingly, comes across as the most interesting character with a performance that is dark and self-absorbed.