April 24, 2009

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State of Play (PG-13)
A 24-esque plot about a Blackwater-like private military company is uncovered by a Woodward-and-Bernstein-ish reporter in State of Play, a total wish-fulfillment fantasy about what it’s like to be a journalist.

Government plots connected to seemingly everyday murders and clandestine meetings in shadowy locales — these are things that reporters dream about, salivate for, but that rarely happen. For most of us, covering “the government” consists of sitting in meetings wherein people argue about how big a store sign can be and whether or not it can be lit. These are important issues, but I doubt anybody’s going to make a movie called All the Alderman’s Zoning Boards.

So we dream of getting involved in those once-in-a-lifetime Watergate-like stories and satiate ourselves with journalism porn like this. Here, Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), some kind of senior cops reporter or something (most big newspapers actually have fairly well defined turfs over which people fight but this is boring and seldom something you’ll see in movies about newspapers), goes to investigate a murder of two people in a Washington, D.C., alley — probably drug-related, officialdom tells him. Meanwhile, a story is unfolding about the death of a young woman named Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) who worked in the office of Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). He’s in the middle of committee hearings about a Blackwater-ish defense company called PointCorp and rather than simply take a moment of silence over his staffer’s death, he chokes up and starts crying, thus confirming to everyone instantly that he’d been having an affair with her.

Cal McAffrey is the point at which these two stories initially converge. He was Collins’ college roommate and years later had an affair with Collins’ wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn). Now, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a scrappy young reporter for McAffrey’s Washington Post-like newspaper’s Internet division, is heading up the coverage on Collins and she goes to McAffrey for help. At first he swats her away, but then he finds a link that connects his run-of-the-mill murders to her political intrigue and he decides to enlist this cubby reporter in helping him uncover a massive government conspiracy.

Points to State of Play for being less absurd than a similar plot on this season’s 24 and for showing reporters spending a lot of time making phone calls and getting hung up on, which is actually more true to life than meeting secret sources or getting chased through parking garages (things that also happen here). Also, any movie that puts Helen Mirren in charge of people and lets her swear at them is good eatin’. I find myself incapable of taking this movie seriously as a government thriller (Congressman Ben Affleck, indeed), but as junk food entertainment offering guilty-pleasure level suspense it works just fine. Sure, you never forget Russell Crowe is the one rumpling himself up as a journalist, but that doesn’t get in the way of the action, which plays out a bit like a TV procedural, complete with requisite twists and feints. And McAdams is just fine — you believe that she’s equal parts bright-eyed and dogged. And we’re thankfully spared all the things that could push this movie from fast food into unappetizing — no “stop the presses,” no speech about the Importance of Journalism. State of Play is not the All the President’s Men for a new age but it’s perfectly satisfying to feed a media junkie’s addiction. B-

Rated PG-13 for some violence, language including sexual references and brief drug content. Directed by Kevin Macdonald and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray (from the TV series by Paul Abbott), State of Play is an hour and 58 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Universal Pictures.