In the movies and on TV, investigations always look so exciting and fun — piecing together the facts, swapping clues, untangling the web strand by strand, etc. In a story centered around journalism, this mystery-solving stuff is what makes it fun to watch, especially if there's also a good dose of realism but not so much that it becomes mired in realistic details and we get bored. State of Play very nicely balances these things: It's a sensational murder mystery-thriller but with a scruffy, grumpy journalist lead character and a supporting cast of equally "normal" people. There's enough fiction and embellishment to be escapism, and enough reality to make it believable.
Russell Crowe plays grizzled journalist Cal McAffrey who is something of a legendary dinosaur at the struggling Washington Globe newspaper. His longtime friend, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), comes under scrutiny when a woman from his research team dies tragically and the public learns that Collins was having an affair with her. As the police conduct their own investigation, Cal himself tries to get to the bottom of the woman's mysterious death — partially to get a juicy story and partially to help clear his friend's name in the scandalous situation. The young, eager blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) insists on teaming up with Cal on his search as she tries to prove herself as a writer at the Globe. Together they work to uncover the truth, but every new revelation brings with it a twisty new discovery and soon the two journalists find themselves enmeshed in a nasty mixture of political conspiracies and tangled personal relationships. That's all I'll say about the plot, but for more of my thoughts on it all, read more.
Trust and deceit are at the heart of this story, as is the blurred line between formal police investigation (to solve a case) and investigative reporting (to get a scoop). Cal and Stephen's friendship is tested repeatedly as Cal’s desire to get as many details for his story as possible gets in the way of his compassion for a buddy. Past hurts also creep back to haunt them and further confuse Cal's motives for getting to the bottom of things. Yet, thankfully, there's no needless lingering on individual characters' personal lives. What we know of these people is almost completely restricted to how they're involved in the messy web of secrets, and the extraneous stuff is pushed aside in favor of the meat of the story. Even the relationship that forms between Cal and Della is handled with a light, delicate touch. Will this remain a mentor-mentee kind of thing, or is there more there? We don't really need to know because watching the trust and mutual respect blossom between them over the course of the movie is gratifying enough.
Admittedly, I had low expectations for this movie and certain things (like Affleck’s entire performance) never managed to exceed those expectations, but regardless, I think it's a success in that it achieves exactly what films in this genre should achieve. It sweeps us up in an intriguing puzzle and maintains our attention for two full hours, while also posing some interesting questions (what is the role of journalism today — especially in relation to politics? Is journalism dying?). It's not the kind of movie that will make you feel a lot of things, but I went in looking for escape and I got it. It may essentially be a story about journalism, but it still manages to be incredibly engrossing.
Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures