Let’s get one thing clear. This movie is the second time I’ve seen Jason Bateman in S&M gear.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about State of Play, the new Russell Crowe thriller that happens to star Ben Affleck as a senator trying to bring down a major private defense corporation.
By watching the trailers for this movie, one might think it is an edgy, political thriller complete with intense chase scenes and complicated intrigue. You’d be right, but somehow the movie manages to rise above all that cliché to become something I really didn’t expect…a really fun movie about interesting characters working in the newspaper business.
At the end of the day, this movie is less about all the plot twists and turns that permeate the story. Instead, it’s about an aging, old-school newspaper reporter (Crowe) working with a young, internet obsessed cub reporter (a ridiculously adorable Rachel McAdams) to break a real, investigative story…you know, the kind they used to write before bloggers and mega-corporations took over the news in this country.
I hate those damn bloggers. Wait. Shit. Nevermind.
We open with one of the most fun character introductions I’ve seen in a long while–Russell Crowe in his old, beat-up car singing along to a high-energy Irish song on his tape deck and dumping a bag of chips into his mouth before tossing them in the back with all the other garbage. It’s the typical non-image-obsessed reporter slob we’ve seen in movies past, but the fact that Crowe is on his way to a murder scene adds a level of fun and coolness to the character. We see very clearly that this is his life, 100%, and this is and will always be the norm for him.
It’s a sentiment that is echoed in the film’s final shots, and it’s this “another day, another dollar” theme that keeps the film from getting caught up in its own corporate-america/political intrigue bullshit. This is a movie more about a reporter cracking a particularly stubborn story more than anything. There will be pitfalls, danger, double-agents and even conflicts of interest, but these are usually underplayed (at least at the end of the day, if not in individual scenes).
I am not going to give away too much plot. We meet Senator Collins (Ben Affleck), a man trying to bring down a multi-billion dollar corporate defense firm. When his head researcher is killed, news stories of an illicit affair between the two break, and the senator must turn to his long-time reporter friend Cal McAffrey (Crowe) to spin the story. In the process, McAffrey uncovers a possible conspiracy and enlists the help of McAdams’ Della Frye. Hilarity ensues.
And I’m not joking, really. This movie has a level of fun and dry humor, most of it coming from Crowe’s character, that I really didn’t expect. Even in dire circumstances, McAffrey is always a charmer…always a manipulative but kind-hearted reporter…and this lends a plausible lightness to some of the movie’s most weighty scenes.
Now, let’s talk about Ben Affleck. I have been a long-time Ben Affleck supporter, and it really frustrates me that after such a great turn in Hollywoodland as well as his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, it’s still necessary to defend him. Yes, the man made Pearl Harbor, and Daredevil, and (God help us) Gigli, and those were all bad, atrocious movies. But Affleck wasn’t exactly bad in them. He was playing up his persona toward the end of its life-span. He was bland, it’s true, but that’s kind of what audiences had come to expect. It was the way the script was written and the way the film was directed.
I still say, though, that if you give him a good role, the man will do good things, and that is true here. His Senator Collins is a complicated character…at once the poster-boy of government corruption as well as a symbol of the white knight, fighting evil corporations at great risk to himself. His relationship with McAffrey, too, is a complicated one. We feel that each is the other’s only friend, but the nature of their lives means that the friendship can never be really pure. It’s a great relationship that, while low-key, is something slightly different from what we’ve seen before.
That’s kind of what this movie does. In a time when it seems each movie has to have some kind of high-concept, end of the world or superhero scenario, State of Play takes elements we have seen before and plays them in a slightly new way. Because of this, the film feels fresh without ever feeling like it is being taken over by style or spectacle. It’s more akin to classic filmmaking than a lot of Hollywood films coming out today, and that, ironically, gives it a fresh and unique feeling (even though it’s based on a TV series).
It’s fitting for this film, which is also about the shift from traditional news to web-based blogging. The movie gets in plenty of digs at current journalistic integrity, and we all nod our heads in agreement. The decline of American journalism is an issue that I think every American is somewhat aware of, and it’s something that feels unstoppable in a culture of immediate gratification and tabloid obsession. So it’s good to know that Cal McAffrey is out there, chasing down leads and working on his 1985 computer to meet a print deadline and bring us a culturally relevant story that nobody else has.
Really, when is the last time we had a really good movie about reporters reporting? I can’t remember, honestly. But if any movie ever made me want to grab a pen and paper and start tracking down sources, it’s this one.