It’s a measure of the smarts at work in “State of Play” that while none of the characters’ motives are clean, the movie never lapses into cynicism. This tense, cleanly made thriller, directed by Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”), plays off the faux scandals of the Clinton years (the Lewinsky affair) and the genuine outrages that occurred under Bush (contracting mercenaries to fight in Iraq) and says that what remains of the press is no longer able to tell the difference between real news and fake news.
The plot takes off with the seeming suicide of a young congressional aide. It’s quickly discovered that the dead woman was having an affair with her boss, a rising congressman (Ben Affleck) who’s holding hearings on the government’s business dealings with a company that supplies mercenaries. Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), a reporter for a high-profile Washington paper, was the congressman’s college roommate, and what begins as advice to his friend on how to weather the scandal quickly turns into an investigation that connects the dead girl to a double murder and all three deaths to the mercenary merchants under investigation.
The real subject of “State of Play,” though, is the death of newspapers. In the movie’s view, the 24-hour news cycle, the rise of the internet and corporate media takeovers have combined to make a perfect storm that will cripple journalism and give crooked pols and corrupt, murderous organizations a freer hand than they already have.
Cal is aided in his investigation by the paper’s young Beltway blogger Della Frye. In the role, Rachel McAdams seems to be playing a new archetype: the journalistic naïf who acts — and writes — as if she’s seen it all already. Anyone who’s been around a newsroom or magazine in the last few years has encountered Della: she’s the kind who combines an easily aroused — and thimble-deep — sense of indignation with the calculated instincts of the born careerist. Her copy is a mess of hearsay and selective facts, with nary of whit of reflection to temper any of it. McAdams uses her whippet-thin build and big eyes to great comic effect — she’s all hunger and ambition and certain that Cal is a dinosaur who can’t teach her anything. McAdams is even funnier when Cal arouses Della’s passion to be a real journalist. Every questionable shortcut Cal employs, every lie he instructs Della to tell to further the story causes her to channel her inner journalism student and complain that, well, that just isn’t ethical. She’s like the flustered virgin who realizes her boyfriend expects her to go all the way on prom night. It’s a terrific performance.
There’s a slyness, too, in Crowe’s portrayal of Cal. I’ve never seen anyone get at the mixture of antiauthority conviction and traditionalism that defines most beat reporters, the fierce loyalty and the willingness to betray. With his shaggy hair, grad student wardrobe and the gut that years of sitting at his computer and snarfing junk food has gotten him, Crowe’s Cal is the type of talented pain in the ass who’s proud to be an anachronism, and Crowe, who understands wised up is not the same things as cynical, gets you immediately on Cal’s side. No one this sly is a saint, but Cal is the hero because, in a craft rapidly becoming an entry on a balance sheet, he’s one of the few left who gives a damn. And that’s what brings him into conflict with the paper’s editor, played by Helen Mirren.
Casting Mirren in the role is a particularly canny move. She’s one of those rare actors we expect to be entirely free of bullshit, and when we hear her berating Cal for passing up a cheap, gossipy and probably false story because the paper’s new corporate masters will expect her to have it and to have it first, it brings home just what dire straits journalism is in. If someone with the backbone of Helen Mirren can be swayed by the worms sliming their way into ownership positions, what hope is left?
Macdonald shows a real feeling for what the physical presence of actors brings to their role. As the party hack advising Affleck, Jeff Daniels uses his thickened build to convey a career of glad-handing corruption. And in a sensational performance as a sleazy young operator caught up in the scandal, Jason Bateman makes you feel as if his boyish face is being eaten away by the rot inside him. In her one scene, Viola Davis is, as usual, utterly believable, and as Affleck’s wife, Robin Wright Penn is free of the actressy manner that’s cluttered up her work in the last few years.