Ah, the grizzled, big-city newsman: crusty, crabby, connected. He hasn’t shaved in a week, his cubicle floor has a decade’s worth of accumulated junk stacked into craggy towers, and he reeks of whiskey — but he can sneak you into the city morgue at 1:00 a.m. on a moment’s notice. Quick-thinking, clever, and street-smart, he’s a friend to stuck screenwriters everywhere (how else do you get pertinent information off the dead guy’s cell phone?). What would the movies do without their pudgier-than-life, ink-stained heroes? When the newspaper business falls, and the big-city dailies are gone, who will replace them on the screen?
Perhaps no one, or perhaps a pert young blogger — just as soon as she’s inculcated in the reporterly ways of a rumpled old hack. That’s the suggestion offered up by State of Play, director Kevin MacDonald’s D.C.-based journo-thriller, a movie concerned with the decline of the newspaper industry just as much as — perhaps more than — with the political intrigue that motors the movie forward.
That pert young blogger is named Della Frye and played by Rachel McAdams. She’s a rookie Capitol Hill blogger for the Washington Globe, and when a congressional aide dies on the Metrorail tracks one morning, she hits up surly vet reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) for information, hoping that his personal friendship with the aide’s boss, Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), will come in handy. Was Collins sleeping with the pretty young staffer? Is there more to the woman’s death than it first seems?
McAffrey exhibits the sort of disdain for bloggers that one usually reserves for celebrity defense attorneys. “Look, I’m just trying to help you get a few facts in the mix before you next decide to upchuck online,” is what he says when he’s actually trying to be helpful. And his editor’s pointed defense of Frye — “She’s hungry, she’s cheap, and she churns out copy every hour” — doesn’t make their relationship any cozier. But questions about the staffer’s death persist, and eventually lead both reporters into a cauldron of Beltway conspiracy involving a Blackwater-like private defense contractor that Collins and the aide had been investigating. Their pursuit of answers to these questions makes up much of the movie, and the movie never cheats with how it presents the facts of the case. Screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray deserve significant credit for their impressive commitment to honest, no-gimmicks storytelling.
MacDonald, meanwhile, deserves equal credit for what the movie gets right about Washington. Location shooting paid off — it’s the rare D.C.-based movie that actually looks recognizably like Washington, and the commitment to little details is commendable. (We even get to find out who eats for free at Ben’s Chili Bowl.) It gets the city’s characters largely right too: McAffrey, the serious journalist, lives in a cluttered one-bedroom hovel and fiddles with his Blackberry in traffic; his brisk and business-minded editor (the delightfully sharp Helen Mirren) laughs off the idea of turning crime-scene evidence over to the police; and, after being cornered with some unpleasant truths, a pompous politician resorts to anxious platitudes about American values while sneeringly calling his interrogator “son.”
Even better, or at least more entertaining, is Jason Bateman, who shows up as an oily flack with a penchant for boys, girls, and leather — ideally all at the same time. His sex-freak sleaziness is certainly exaggerated, but he speaks some of the film’s truest lines, including the following defense when Crowe first begins to question him: “I don’t know anything about anything! I’m a PR guy!” As any reporter will tell you, that is almost universally true.
Neither party politics nor ideology plays much of a role in the movie’s outlook: Collins’s affiliation is never identified, and all the politicians we meet are compromised in some way or another. Anti-corporate conspiracies flourish, but there’s just as much political malfeasance as corporate mischief. One of McAffrey’s sources spins a plausible but wild tale about the coming “Muslim-terror goldrush” and the eventual total privatization of homeland security. The details are somewhat muddled, but 30, perhaps 40 billion dollars in defense contracts are at stake. “That’s wrath of God money,” McAffrey’s source exclaims. God’s wrath apparently comes rather cheap; these days Congress spends that much every few hours.
By the time the final act rolls around, the corporate conspiracies get pushed into the background. The movie’s political sympathies aren’t with either party; instead they’re with the news industry itself, as the movie offers up both nostalgia for the bygone days of investigative political journalism and a defense of its current necessity. The movie’s print-media triumphalism can be a bit sanctimonious at times: Would any newspaper blogger in possession of a major scoop really decline to publish immediately for any reason, much less because, as Frye explains, “a piece this big, people should probably have newsprint on their hands when they read it”? But its dramatization of the complexities of journalistic ethics and business in a changing media environment is more nuanced than anything prior, including the fifth, journalism-based season of HBO’s The Wire.
Indeed, as political thrillers go, it’s the smartest in recent memory, though admittedly that isn’t saying much, considering the dismal competition (e.g., The International, The Sentinel, Rendition). What it offers is what one wishes would be standard Hollywood fare: a clever, competent, and generally satisfying story told in a straightforward manner. Stop the presses? No. But make sure to pick up a copy in the morning.
– Peter Suderman blogs at The American Scene.