If District denizens can tear their eyes from the background as they try to identify every local exterior, they might notice “State of Play” is a taut and tense, albeit pretty formulaic, political thriller.
That’s no surprise, given the film’s pedigree: directed by Kevin Macdonald, whose “The Last King of Scotland” was one of the most insightful political dramas of recent years; based on the acclaimed British miniseries; adapted by Matthew Michael Carnahan, whose “The Kingdom” was the biggest (and perhaps only) war-on-terror-themed success, with rewrites by Tony Gilroy, Oscar-nominated writer-director of “Michael Clayton,” and Billy Ray, writer-director of the Washington story “Shattered Glass.” “The Queen’s” Peter Morgan reportedly did uncredited rewrites.
Two murders set the story in motion. The victims are a homeless guy in Georgetown and an assistant and lover to congressman Stephen Collins.
Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) soon suspects the killings are connected — and tied to a huge conspiracy that involves a paramilitary, Blackwater-like private security firm with bigger ambitions than simply providing muscle in the Middle East.
Complicating McAffrey’s investigation is that Collins (Ben Affleck) is a college friend with whose wife (Robin Wright Penn) the reporter had an affair years before. He has reasons to help them both, then, but isn’t too willing to sacrifice the kind of idealism that always seems to drive this kind of reporter-protagonist.
The newspaper industry is one of the economy’s most troubled, and McAffrey has to navigate between upholding his ideals against “the bloodsuckers and the bloggers” and helping keep his employer afloat. It’s an up-to-the-minute plot line.
The characters here are archetypes, to be sure, but they’re all perfectly cast. Mr. Affleck is smooth as butter as the rising star of his party, and Miss Wright Penn has the perfect mixture of vulnerability and cold pragmatism as the politician’s put-upon wife. Rachel McAdams has an old-fashioned, spunky charm as Della Frye, McAffrey’s new media sidekick, while Helen Mirren is deliciously biting as the acerbic British editor. The standout supporting player is Jason Bateman, responsible for most of the comic relief as a drugged-out public relations high roller.
Mr. Crowe isn’t just the angry idealist we’ve gotten used to him playing. He’s good at intense, of course, but he can act rather piggish in a fight with a lady and then smilingly admit later, “I showed her a little snout, yeah.” Perhaps it’s time for him to branch out with a comedy.
Oh, and you don’t need to take your eyes off the action and look too hard to see the actor grab a half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl.
TITLE: “State of Play”
RATING: PG-13 (Some violence; language, including sexual references; and brief drug content)
CREDITS: Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray based on the British miniseries by Paul Abbott.
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes
WEB SITE: stateofplaymovie.net
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS