DVD Release Date:  September 1, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  April 17, 2009
Rating:  PG-13 (for some violence, language including sexual references, and brief drug content)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  127 min.
Director:  Kevin MacDonald
Actors:  Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Viola Davis

In last year's Body of Lies, a political thriller about American policy in the Middle East, actor Russell Crowe played a beefy Washington, D.C.-area intelligence official who communicated with field operative Leonardo DiCaprio. Now Crowe is back in State of Play, portraying reporter Cal McAffrey, a beefy Washington, D.C.-based journalist who helps a cub reporter unearth troubling truths about America's conflict in the Middle East.

Like Body of Lies, State of Play tries to seriously challenge American policy in an entertaining fashion, but unlike Lies, Play never crackles or grips the viewer. Its performances are strong for the most part, but its pacing is too often sluggish and its scenario unconvincing. It's the equivalent of a poor "ripped from the headlines" episode of Law and Order—not the caliber of a top-drawer feature-length conspiracy thriller.

The villains in this movie's scenario are the employees of PointCorp—the hired contractors charged with keeping the peace in a war-torn land, but who have been accused of excessive responses and civilian deaths in that country. PointCorp is an obvious fictional counterpart to Blackwater, a company that hired out peacekeepers in Iraq only to see charges of brutality taint its reputation to the point where the company actually changed its name. (It now goes by the name Xe).

Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is heading hearings looking into the actions of defense contractors. The film opens with the death of one of his research assistants—an incident that leads to the revelation that the congressman was having an affair with the female staffer. In a second major real-life parallel, the scandal begins to play out just as did the real-life scandal surrounding Rep. Gary Condit several years ago. In that case, Condit was suspected in the disappearance and death of Chandra Levy, a young woman with whom the congressman was conducting an affair. An early suspect in the case, Condit was never charged in her murder (indeed, another man was recently accused of killing Levy), but the public turned on Condit, who lost a subsequent primary and left Congress.

In the film, Collins and McAffrey have an uneasy relationship because Cal was once the lover of Collins' wife (Robin Wright Penn), Anne. Now the congressman and the reporter both need each other. Collins wants the details McAffrey is uncovering about the connections between the woman's death and PointCorp, while McAffrey needs background on Collins' relationship with the young assistant. The veteran reporter knows a juicy story when he sees one, and he warms to the opportunity to help cub reporter Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) break the story, even as his hard-nosed editor (Helen Mirren) fusses about McAffrey's refusal to heed the boss' advice.

The movie also gives Collins a chance at public restoration that Condit never received. Through the hearings into PointCorp's practices, Collins uses his hearings to attack the company's CEO for war profiteering. It's a blustery moment that falls short of the righteous anger it's supposed to stoke in viewers, if only because the Blackwater controversy has faded from the front pages of the nation's newspapers.

Another of the problems with State of Play is the character of Affleck's wife, Anne. Penn is a fine actress, and she does her best with the role. But it's hard to believe that she and McAffrey were former lovers. The chemistry between those two is minimal, and it's not clear whether the film wants us to root for the former couple to get back together—an unsavory prospect, given that the woman is already married, albeit to a man who's been unfaithful to her.

So what's to like about State of Play? The lead performances are fine, although McAdams is overshadowed by Crowe, Affleck and Mirren. Best of all is a supporting performance from Jason Bateman, who gives the film a strong pulse for about 20 minutes as a key source for Collins' story. Also to the film's credit, Collins and Anne never reconnect romantically, nor do Collins and Frye hit it off. Their relationship is strictly professional—a newbie reporter leaning on a veteran to break her first big story.

But if State of Play wanted to be a love song to print journalism, it needed to do a better job of digging into the contrast between "old-fashioned" print reporting and online reporting. After some early fireworks and sparking dialogue about newsroom politics, the film drops that issue for the most part to focus on McAffrey's shoe-leather reporting and the tightening net around Collins. Frye, who had fought her editor for a piece of the breaking story, has a much reduced presence in the later stretch of the film.

In the end, the film gives McAffrey the hero's role, including an extended scene of him filing the story—for the print edition, of course—as his awed co-workers look on. Whether watching a man sit at a computer and type provides a satisfactory conclusion for this "thriller" is for viewers to decide.


Question? Concerns? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@verizon.net.

CAUTIONS:

  • Smoking/Drinking:  Drinking at home, and at a bar; a reference to "Irish wine" (whiskey), which is then consumed; a character requests a beer, although he's said to be stoned; a man takes a cigarette, which is later lit, although we don't see him put the cigarette in his mouth; drug references.
  • Language/Profanity:  A joke about sex with an overweight woman; a crude reference to oral sex and to the male sex organ; some foul language; Lord's name taken in vain; one character tells another not to take the Lord's name in vain.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Kissing; discussion of an earlier affair; a picture of a woman in her underwear; discussion of a rumored three-way sexual tryst; a woman is said to have gotten "on her back all by herself"; reference to out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
  • Violence:  A chase scene includes a man struck by a motorcycle; a man is shot twice; disturbing imagery during a scene in an autopsy room; a man under medical care is shot; a man is shot at and his hand is wounded; an armed man is shot.