State of Play

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            “State of Play” is less about plot than place. Endangered as they are, the atmosphere and newsrooms of America’s newspapers are already inducing nostalgia. On the light side, we seem doomed to a movie world without the smoke and fedoras of “The Front Page,” without the investigative truth of “All the President’s Men.” More importantly, we wonder, as newspapers close, who will do the investigative reporting so essential to exposing corruption on the state, federal, and corporate levels. If the ghosts of journalism ever return, let’s hope Helen Mirren, Russell Crowe, and Rachel McAdams are on hand to do the job they do so well here. “State of Play” is a marvelous last gasp of a dying business.

            Plot first. Cal McCaffrey (Russell Crowe), a longtime reporter for the Washington Globe, was once a college roommate of Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) whose beautiful research assistant/lover has just been run over by a Metro train. Cal’s search for the truth of the thing leads him to arrogant corporate criminals who run a company that is unmistakably modeled on the Blackwater mercenary group.

            With Della (Rachel McAdams) by his side as the newbie in need of an education in basic journalism, Cal does what newspapermen do best by teaching her that a reporter’s tools are his pen, his phone and his feet. Watching Cal scrape up and follow his leads all over town is a news junkie’s delight.

            Place next. The politics of the newsroom, the turf clashes with the police, the cornering of the boss, are done with skill and affection. In this case, the boss is Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren). Cameron is a fiery old-fashioned editor who is tough but slightly hesitant to follow the tentacles in this new age of the diminishment of newspapers. Still she is a scrappy, harsh, cynical foil to Russell Crowe’s slovenly but exceedingly sharp newsman.

            Led by this determined team, the movie runs on a fast track of foreboding and suspense. The sight of pillars, underground garages, and empty buildings is accompanied not by music but ominous sounds that scare us properly. When Cal returns to the office after exceeding the orders of his boss, she says, “I know you got shot last night and I know I should be making you hot cocoa, but I’m so goddamned mad!” We’ll miss that kind of dialogue when the papers have gone under.

            The plot unfolds, one troubled, often confusing, twist at a time; This movie is all about atmosphere. The older generation in the cast appreciates that and plays to it. It’s both a generational and technological drama, a journalism thriller in modern dress. What comes to mind, of course, is Woodward and Bernstein pursuing the truth of Watergate and then returning to Katherine Graham with each lead for permission to publish. Until someone takes on the unrevealed reality of Blackwater and Halliburton, Crowe and Mirren and their colleagues have given us a great newspaper yarn.


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