Throughout the years, a number of British exports have had immense success here in the United States. Whether it is The Beatles, “The Office” or fish and chips, there is just something about these select cultural phenoms that Americans cannot get enough of. One such export is the exciting new political thriller, “State of Play,” a film adaptation of the critically acclaimed six-part British TV serial that is not only a topical look at the journalistic profession but also a powerful crime drama full of twists and crooked politicians.
By taking on an approach similar to the one used in the Academy Award-winning “All the President’s Men” — a film about Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate Scandal — director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) truly captures the world of journalism and transforms it into a thought-provoking film that asks questions yet still entertains. However, because the film does not center on a factual event, Macdonald has the freedom to weave together politics, crime and reporting into a captivating story with twists at every corner.
These constant layers of surprise come courtesy of a well-crafted screenplay penned by Matthew Michael Carnahan (“Lions for Lambs”), Tony Gilroy (“Duplicity”) and Billy Ray (“Breach”). While the group’s dialogue-driven script leads to a couple of wordy lulls, they include plenty of thrilling revelations to keep the movie rolling at a frenzied pace for the most part.
Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck, “He’s Just Not That Into You”) is a fast-rising U.S. congressman whose mistress and head research assistant dies after inexplicably falling in front of subway car. While investigating a seemingly unrelated murder, Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe, “Body of Lies”) — an old-school Washington Post reporter and longtime friend of Collins — stumbles upon evidence that appears to link the deaths. With the aid of young but ambitious rookie writer Della Frye (Rachel McAdams, “Married Life”), McAffrey must find the truth among a dangerous web of lies and coverups.
The film’s relevance to today’s society is truly impressive. In the film, a financially-strapped Washington Post is bought out by a major corporation that demands cheaply produced material that sells. This begs the intriguing question of how much real investigating is conducted these days and introduces audiences in an engaging way to a real-life problem plaguing newspapers all around the country. The result is a film that subliminally looks at the death of newspapers under a fast-paced, political-thriller exterior laced with crime and murder.
The film also expertly places the film’s focus on two turbulent conflicts. Not only does it revolve around the clash between press and politicians, or collusion and truthfulness, but also on the battle between old and new media, which is perfectly contrasted in the relationship between McAffrey and Frye.
Although the film features a number of colorful characters, its biggest pitfall is that a majority of them are underdeveloped. We often do not get the chance to learn their backstories, and when we do, it is only enough to keep the plot moving without providing too many juicy details. Fortunately, the film’s big-name cast provides stellar performances overall that overshadow this flaw.
With his shoulder-length hair, beard and overall scruffy appearance, Crowe is fantastic in the way he portrays McAffrey as a crusty warrior fighting for journalistic integrity. He commands the screen at all times, no matter if he is speaking or just lowering his head and raising an eyebrow, one of his trademark Crowe-isms. He also injects some witty humor into the film with spot-on delivery.
In the film, Frye is the ideal foil to McAffrey with her inexperience and inability to differentiate between blog gossip and hard-hitting journalism. McAdams plays her role to perfection. Her constant doe-eyed expression and vulnerability truly give a believable sense of innocence.
While the two leading roles are a dominant force on their own, it is the stellar supporting cast that helps Crowe and McAdams shine. Affleck is convincing, for once, in a grownup role that actually fits his acting personality. Helen Mirren (“Inkheart”) and Jason Bateman (“Hancock”) also stand out in their underutilized roles. The film would have benefited greatly if they had more screen time.
All in all, “State of Play” is a masterful film created by a director and writers who know how to make a provocative movie that challenges audiences to think but also keeps them on the edge of their seats. Throw in exceptional acting and cinematography, and you have yourself an old-fashioned, cinematic story worth checking out.
4 out of 5 stars.