Whether you're reading this review with a smudge of ink on your fingers or you simply opened a new tab, State of Play, a perfectly timed, labyrinthine whodunit from director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) will hit close to home. It's a smart, edge-of-your-seat thriller that doesn't just tap into the zeitgeist but hooks up a keg funnel. Play takes a nimble, swaggering look at a journalist in over his head and his blogging underling who didn't realize that getting the scoop is a 24-hour gig, as they contend with corruption, Blackwater and the decline of the modern newspaper. It's a tall order that Macdonald and the film's three accomplished screenwriters ' Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) ' handle with verve and gusto.
State of Play, based on the BBC miniseries of the same name, begins with a feverish sequence of events in which a man with a briefcase and a pizza delivery guy are gunned down in cold blood, a beautiful young woman seems to commit suicide by stepping in front of a metro train, and House hearings regarding a Blackwater-esque mercenary company are interrupted by a hotshot congressman (Ben Affleck, tucking in his chin) announcing the woman's death with genuine, scandal-worthy tears. The fictional Washington Globe's new gossip blogger (Rachel McAdams in hipster garb) runs with the possibility of an affair, but the Globe's old-school veteran reporter (schlubby Russell Crowe), who knows the congressman well, suspects there's more to the story. He takes McAdams under his wing and together they uncover a conspiracy that, as they say, goes all the way to the top.
That barely scratches the surface of what's going on. The taut script and lively performances from Crowe, McAdams and Affleck, and from supporting players Jason Bateman, Robin Wright Penn and Viola Davis, are a credit to all involved.
There is something to be said for the journalistic wish fulfillment on display. Audiences, especially those full of local press, love to see a showy, sloppy reporter doing his job effortlessly and effectively. We love the idea that there are still people out there dedicated enough to finding the truth that they're willing to dodge bullets. It's never that dramatic in reality, however, and in that sense State of Play is like porn for the newspaperman, a beat reporter's beat-off flick in the vein of The Insider or All the President's Men. On the other hand, how many great journalists were first inspired by Robert Redford's glamorous portrayal of the Fourth Estate? Crowe's performance might even play as escapism in a year in which major American cities are suddenly without a daily paper and new plagiarism scandals pop up weekly.
State of Play's closing credits roll during footage of a newspaper going through the long, industrial process involved in getting newspapers like this one into your ink-stained hands, and the scene's elegiac tone is bittersweet. It's a love letter to an antiquated process, creaking and beautiful, like Crowe's character and his vanishing profession.