State of Play -- Film Review

The peril in building a murder mystery/thriller around a journalist is that a reporter is not a cop. Yet just about everything Russell Crowe does in "State of Play," playing D.C. reporter Cal McAffrey, relates to police work, not journalism. He visits an autopsy room, withholds evidence, grills a witness in a safe house, comes under fire more than once and nails the perp in the final scene. Funnily enough, he seldom has deadlines or writes anything.

"State of Play" makes for a reasonably good though highly implausible edge-of-your-seater as long as disbelief is suspended regarding everyone's professional duties. Reporters, cops, politicians -- no one behaves as they should. Perhaps that's what writers Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Billy Ray and director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") have in mind, though: that the roles of the media, government and police have grown fuzzy as everyone is motivated more by self-interest and self-preservation than any search for the truth.

The film looks like a solid midrange performer. There is nothing we haven't seen here before in terms of chases, intrigue and betrayals, so for all its A-list cast and production values, the film comes off as routine.

The script is based on a 2003 BBC miniseries written by Paul Abbott, which took place in London, but the transition to our nation's capital works surprisingly well. Today's bloggers nicely imitate Fleet Street, and a politician with zipper issues and concerns over private defense contractors are virtually ripped from the headlines.

Both productions feature these key ingredients: The seemingly random deaths of a young junkie shot execution style and a legislator's attractive research assistant in a subway accident that might be a suicide prove to be related and a reporter takes advantage of -- exploits? -- an old friendship with a legislator and his wife to get insider information. It's then a race among a news outlet, the police and government minions to ferret out the truth, though at least one of those estates probably wants the truth buried.

Crowe's Cal went to school with rising Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), knows his wife (Robin Wright Penn) better than a friend should and has an editor (Helen Mirren) under pressure from new corporate bosses. Consequently, there are so many conflicts of interest and ethical breaches contained within his every move that one ceases to keep track.

The film pays lip service to the fading power and resources of an old-fashioned newspaper but prefers to wallow in nostalgia for the pre-Internet days. Cal is paired with what once would have been a "cub" reporter but is now a blogger, Della (Rachel McAdams). He -- and the movie -- think ill of blogger. One line of dialogue even contains this linkage: "bloodsuckers and bloggers."

This gives their partnership its conflict, but the writers should have paid more attention to how bloggers operate and how that affects a newsroom. The story these two work on for days as the mystery unravels would have leaked here and there on an hourly basis. By the time of the perp's arrest, their "scoop" would be long gone. Della should have been posting as the investigation goes on, driving Cal nuts but giving the film a true ticking clock.

Gaps in logic are everywhere. The dead junkie's girlfriend comes to Cal and hand delivers crucial evidence. How does she know to go to him? The final twist might be one too many, something a writer dreams up rather than a credible outgrowth of the character relations as developed to that point.

The film's melodrama is too intense for the main actors, forcing everyone to histrionic levels and undermining performances. Consequently, better work appears in smaller roles such as Wright Penn, Jason Bateman as a PR hack and Jeff Daniels as an smarmy congressman.

Tech credits are solid across the board.