MOVIE REVIEW ★★ ½ / 4 Conspiracies Abound in ‘State of Play’

A Look Into Investigative Journalism and Politics

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Ben Affleck plays Congressman Stephen Collins who is caught in the middle of a scandal after his mistress is found dead in State of Play.
Courtesy of Getty Images

State of Play

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan

Starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, and Rachel McAdams


Opens Today

State of Play, based on a BBC miniseries by the same name, begins with a chase: a frantic dash across busy streets and crowded stores. The person being pursued, a street criminal, finds what seems to be a safe location behind trash cans, only to be shot in the head by an unmasked assailant, an eerie individual the viewer sees at various points in the film. The next scene depicts the murder of a young woman whose death is implied by a scream as she is pushed in front of a subway train. Seemingly unrelated, the two murders set into motion a mystery thriller interweaving journalism, politics, and personal affairs. Despite this fast-paced opening, the film slows to a meandering walk as the plot develops in various locales around Washington, D.C., with twists and turns that eventually confuse the moviegoer.

Russell Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, a messy and crude, yet seasoned and well connected investigative reporter who reluctantly partners up with Della Frye, played by a tenacious and eager Rachel McAdams, to solve the mystery concerning the two initial deaths. The murdered young woman happens to be a research assistant and mistress of Congressman Stephen Collins, played by Ben Affleck, adding to the conflict. Collins had been investigating a military contracting company called PointCorps and its lucrative government deals.

Conspiracy theories, conflicts of interest, and personal intrigue pervade the film, including the fact that McAffrey and Collins were college roommates, PointCorps stands to make billions with the fall of Collins’ reputation, and most importantly of all, the eerie gunman’s identity, which is revealed at the end of the film.

The immense intricacies of the film weighed it down and serve as the main weakness for State of Play. What seemed like hours was only forty-five minutes. The percussion-heavy score became annoying closer to the end of the film with headache-inducing clangs and numbing thuds. In addition, it seems that films criticizing the military have run their course, and the oftentimes anti-military overtones in the film just sounded trite. A couple of plot holes added to the confusion, especially near the end. The end itself, although rather predictable, gave an uneasy, unsatisfied feeling, much like eating a stale cookie.

Despite the complex web of relationships, clichéd lines (Affleck stating “You are my only friend,” to Crowe in his apartment), and a somewhat deflated ending concluding a disorganized resolution, State of Play provides an interesting look into the relationship between journalism and politics. It touches on the aspects of the new age of journalism, viewed through the lens of the Internet and blogs. The overall role of journalism is addressed in State of Play: whether it is to seek the truth or whether it is to mold public opinion. Quests for real answers often give way to sensationalist human interest stories. The former exhibits public service, while the latter sells and makes a profit.

Crowe’s character demonstrates the nitty-gritty life of a good journalist — one who plays hard ball, goes with his guts, risks his life, and, ultimately, gets the story at the end of the day. Frye’s blogging prowess and youthful energy represent what many perceive to be the new era of journalism as many papers face hard financial times and reduced readership. This tension is demonstrated in the development of the film and is reconciled as Frye discovers the bleaker side of journalism and human nature.

In any event, the attention to detail made the viewing experience worthwhile. The subtleties in the different shots, including one of McAffrey’s desk that shows a Mike Luckovich cartoon (kudos if you find it) helped me appreciate the direction of State of Play. McAffrey’s editor, played by Helen Mirren, provided much needed comic relief only a veteran British actress could bring. Granted, although I am a sucker for good film technique, the film as a whole was average at best: it stated loud and clear the importance of the press while getting lost in its own intricate, and, at times, convoluted trail of evidence.