By Matthew E. Milliken
April 18, 2017
State of Play, the 2009 feature starring Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams as Washington newspaper reporters, is a well-paced political thriller with some conventional notions about power and some curious notions about journalism.
The movie, co-written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z, Deepwater Horizon), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Duplicity and Rogue One) and Billy Ray (Breach, Shattered Glass and Captain Phillips), is based on a 2003 British miniseries of the same name written by Paul Abbott. But it feels thoroughly American, despite having a New Zealander (Crowe) portraying a blue-collar Pittsburgh native and being directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), a Scotsman who’s mainly helmed documentaries.
The film opens with a stone-faced man (Michael Berresse) pumping bullets into a teenage junkie (LaDell Preston) who had the misfortune of crossing him and a pizza delivery man (Dan Brown) who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Later that morning, as a Washington Globe crime reporter named Cal McAffrey (Crowe) begins investigating why an unknown single shooter has apparently attacked two very disparate targets, a young congressional aide named Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) dies after being pushed into the path of an oncoming Metro train.
A Globe blogger named Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) starts pursuing that story, which immediately triggers speculation about a romantic liaison between the dead staffer and a prominent young congressional committee chairman named Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). McAffrey is initially drawn to the Baker story because he’s been friends with Collins and his wife, Amy (Robin Wright), since college, but he soon begins to suspect that the deaths are linked.
Collins and Baker had been investigating a shadowy U.S. security firm named PointCorp (which the characters pronounce as “point corps,” not “point corp.”). The beneficiary of multiple lucrative Pentagon outsourcing contracts, PointCorp isn’t really interested in being subjected to public scrutiny. (It doesn’t take a great deal of political savvy to see real-life parallels for these fictional entities: For Baker and Collins, read Chandra Levy and Gary Condit; for PointCorp, read a combination of Academi, formerly Xe and originally known as Blackwater, and Halliburton.)
McAffrey and Frye eventually discover that Collins, Baker and PointCorp are all linked by an oily public-relations executive named Dominic Foy (Jason Bateman), who also has ties to the influential House majority leader, George Fergus (Jeff Daniels). But when virtually everyone in town is either hopelessly cynical or fatally corrupted by an affinity for power, profits, partying or other personal vices, will this reluctant duo be able to get at the truth?
State of Play’s plot points about corporate and political corruption are all pretty standard issue, although there are some interesting twists. But the journalistic quandaries raised herein skate the boundaries of realism and could fuel a semester-long course on the ethics of news gathering and publishing.
Should Globe editor (or maybe publisher?) Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren, classing up an underwritten role) allow McAffrey to continue investigating Baker’s death after it becomes clear that he has trouble separating his loyalty to Collins over his obligations to the paper? Should the paper let Frye continue reporting a story after she becomes witness to a traumatizing violent assault on one of the key players? Should the paper let McAffrey or Frye continue reporting without even a cursory security detail after bullets start flying around them? Was the duo wise not to report lurid allegations about Collins’s extramarital affairs that Baker’s roommate (Katy Mixon) makes on the record because the roommate has serious credibility issues, or should they be fired for not sharing this scoop with their editors?
Moreover, State of Play espouses notions about the virtues of print vs. online journalism that seem, eight years later, awfully quaint, if not downright outdated. While there are advantages to the ways that newspaper reporters have traditionally operated, at least when compared to broadcast or digital journalists, today it seems crazy to assert that information distributed on newsprint is materially better than information distributed by the Internet.
Well, nobody’s perfect. In fact, as nasty and corrupt an environment as this movie depicts, it seems strangely innocent compared to the havoc that Donald Trump and his enablers are wreaking right now in Washington. State of Play isn’t quite as good as, say, The Insider (also a Russell Crowe vehicle) or All the President’s Men, which both have the advantages of being based on true stories, but it provides a solid couple hours of entertainment.