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Movie Review: State of Play

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The newspaper industry is dying. Everybody knows it. Recently, Time put on its cover the image of a fish wrapped in a newspaper, and anyone who's seen The Godfather knows what that means. And with it on that slow march to the grave could be the newspaper thriller; after all, how many years has it been since we've seen as sterling an example of the "Stop the presses!" genre as something like All the President's Men?

State of Play is by no means perfect, but if it's coming at the end of an era, I'm glad it got in before the door shut. Russell Crowe, looking like a weary lion with that shaggy mane of his, plays Cal McAffrey, a veteran Washington Globe reporter who's on the story of the shooting deaths of a thief and a pizza delivery guy, which may or may not be connected to the apparent suicide of Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer). Sonia, an aide to prominent Congressman Steve Collins (Ben Affleck), seemed to have stepped off of a subway platform to her demise, but Collins, a longtime friend of Cal's, reveals to Cal that he had been having an affair with her and shows Cal a bright and cheery video Sonia had sent him mere hours before her death.

There is, of course, more going on, and Cal is determined to get to the bottom of things. First, though, he has to clash with Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a fresh-faced young blogger from the Globe's Web department. Della almost jeopardizes the story by spilling gossip about Collins' relationship with Sonia on the paper's website; this doesn't make Cal too happy, but it's not long before the two form a partnership to crack the story, each writing about different pieces of the puzzle.

This young/old, print/online synergy is indicative of the movie's stance on the Internet's dominance over the newspaper industry. Though Cal and Della become friends, Della is constantly second-guessed, and the film on the whole seems rather dismissive of the idea of Internet journalism. Which does actually raise a good question: In this age of instant headlines, when all it takes to get the word out is to hit the enter button, should we? Shouldn't we slow down and get back to the ways of good old investigative reporting? Doesn't it make you shudder to think of breaking news getting Twittered? State of Play, of course, says yes to all of the above, but then again, as Roger Ebert wrote in his review, "Shouting 'stop the presses!' is ever so much more exciting than shouting 'stop the upload!'"

And one of the most enjoyable things about State of Play is that it does indeed get back to the roots of the newspaper thriller, and relishes in its conventions. Cal and Della work their sources, get too close to the heart of the story, and uncover revelation after revelation. There's even the larger-than-life ruthless editor, here played by a delightfully pissed-off Helen Mirren (she gets to call Russell Crowe a "geezer," and that alone is probably worth the price of admission). And, like any newspaper flick worth its salt, there's a hidden conspiracy at the center of the film which may directly implicate the federal government.

It's to the credit of screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray, working from the acclaimed 2003 BBC mini-series of the same name, that State of Play's many twists and turns not only make sense but are genuinely surprising. When compared to something leaden and predictable like Taken, we realize how truly pleasurable it is to watch a good mystery unfold, its layers slowly falling away until we get to the shocking denouement. Unfortunately, though, perhaps the one thing holding State of Play back is that it lacks the right momentum. For a while, it's enough to merely watch director Kevin Macdonald breathe life into rusty old thriller clichés, the talented cast obviously having a good time with the sharp back-and-forth dialogue, but at some point we expect the movie to really get going, for the tension to shoot into the stratosphere.

It doesn't. The film does grow a little tiresome, and though the final surprises are worth it, what happens in their aftermath hardly feels climactic. Still, State of Play offers a fun ride. It's been lavishly photographed by Rodrigo Prieto (cinematographer on such beautiful films as Babel and Brokeback Mountain), and the cast is almost unanimously fantastic. Crowe is at his strongest since 2005's Cinderella Man, and if Rachel McAdams can't quite bring herself to his level, she also doesn't do the movie any harm. Ben Affleck brings the perfect unassuming, all-American quality to the role of the scandalized congressman, and again proves that he's got more to offer than his detractors suggest. Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Harry Lennix, and Viola Davis all give memorable supporting turns.

And if anything, it's a definite improvement over documentarian Macdonald's first narrative feature, The Last King of Scotland, which featured a terrific Idi Amin impersonation by Forest Whitaker but little else. Here, though, is a film with color, life, vigor, and for at least its first three-fourths, a snappy energy. If State of Play turns out to be the newspaper thriller's last gasp, it's a damn good one.

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About Arlo J. Wiley