Vast Conspiracies, Just Waiting To Be Exposed

Russell Crowe i i

Paper Trail: Hardened reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) uncovers a high-level scandal in the nation's capital. Universal Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Universal Pictures
Russell Crowe

Paper Trail: Hardened reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) uncovers a high-level scandal in the nation's capital.

Universal Pictures

State of Play

  • Director: Kevin Macdonald
  • Genre: Drama, Thriller
  • Running time: 118 minutes

Rated PG-13 for some violence, language including sexual references, and brief drug content.

Ben Affleck i i

Government Issue: Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is a young congressman looking into shady dealings of a military contractor. hide caption

itoggle caption
Ben Affleck

Government Issue: Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is a young congressman looking into shady dealings of a military contractor.

The American version of State of Play feels creaky and nostalgic — it's as if the filmmakers are pining for the days when journalists were all that stood between us and an alliance of the military-industrial complex and crypto-fascist politicians.

They'd like to bring back the atmosphere of Watergate and All the President's Men: The reporters, played by Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams, are photographed through windows or from high above or behind cars in underground garages, as if someone's always watching, while in the background loom icons like the Washington Monument to remind us how American ideals have been perverted.

For a while, it's gripping stuff, and Crowe's edginess gives the convoluted plot a charge. The problem is, the filmmakers aren't remaking All the President's Men; they're remaking a six-hour British miniseries with a different thrust.

Both versions of State of Play center on university pals who've gone different ways. Cal McAffrey is a scruffy journalist and Stephen Collins a slick, ambitious politician. An aide to Collins — his mistress, it turns out — is murdered. It's a PR disaster, and Cal is torn. He wants to help his friend clear his name and he wants to get the story.

The miniseries was an ensemble piece and a portrait of two machines: one investigative, one legislative. It was also a paranoid conspiracy thriller that opened with a murder, though you sensed that in the end it wouldn't come down to a chase or gun battle — that the answers would be in the characters' faces, in secrets even close friends couldn't detect.

The new script, by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, makes the reporter more of a lone wolf: Gone is the give-and-take among multiple characters that gave the newspaper scenes texture.

It's also a stew of topical headlines: the unchecked power of a Blackwater-like security firm, the financial straits of daily newspapers, the rise of gossipy bloggers. The allusions add punch, and the Watergate tropes ratchet up suspense, but they prime you for a more conventional thriller. Everything added turns out to be beside the point.

The point is blunted, anyway, because the new State of Play is a study in stars' non-combustion. Crowe and Ben Affleck as Collins don't fit together — they don't inhabit the same existential space.

Crowe is a transformer: His actor's DNA changes in every role, and you always feel his mind racing, whereas Affleck is slack-jawed, dopey, not quite broken in. He's temperamentally suited to the part — his opaque, Al Gore-ish affect is the reason, we infer, his character went into politics. But his wheels turn too slowly to keep up. Crowe is doing all the acting.

Music is one way director Kevin Macdonald gives the illusion of momentum. And until the climax, the movie does fly along, with excellent actors bobbing in and out. It was a neat idea to make McAdams' character a cheeky blogger and an insult to Cal's journalistic scruples — although after a good, confrontational start she settles into the role of sidekick.

Robin Wright Penn brings amazing depth of emotion to Collins' wife: Forced to stand by her man, she evokes the poor spouse of Eliot Spitzer after his prostitution scandal.

As the editor of the Washington Globe, Helen Mirren is perfection. Watch how abruptly she shifts from solicitous to chummy to imperious — anything to get what she needs from her reporters and keep her endangered newspaper afloat.

But the climax to which the movie builds is, in this context, a nonevent: feeble, spurious and so 1974. State of Play is like a time bomb that's never dismantled, but never explodes.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.