Deep into the tangled political-media-corporate-greed thriller State of Play, our bedraggled and dogged investigative journalist hero, Russell Crowe, gives some sage advice to his friend, Ben Affleck, the every-hair-in-place but corrupt and scandalized congressmember: “Watch your back.” “You, too,” says his friend, with a hint of threat attached. Two characters that don’t watch their backs wind up dead within the film’s first few minutes, kicking off the movie’s whirlwind of energy.
This is one of those films-and one of those worlds, apparently-where extra back-watching is required. It’s a world where a stealthy Halliburton/Blackwater-like corporation-hungry for “wrath of God money”-stoops to thuggery and worse, where politicians perfect the art of cheating, and where fact-unchecked bloggers undermine the ink-on-hands substantiality of the old-school newspaper business. It’s a wicked world, and perfect fodder for another genre picture in the modern thriller mode in which we are the enemy. Fortunately, perhaps, this film doesn’t quite have the artistic power or smarts to convince us fully of its dark message.
Affleck, as a congressmember in hot water, remains one of Hollywood’s pretty boys, relatively unchallenged by passion or acting ability. Crowe, however, falls into these lone wolf crusader roles, as with his corporate whistle blower in The Insider. Donning a shaggy hairdo that matches his young female partner, Rachel McAdams, Crowe pursues his complex and sordid story through various types of muck, from a junkie thieves’ lair to clean congressional offices where dirty deeds unfold.
On an incidental and personal note, State of Play is one of two newly released major motion pictures, along with The Soloist, in which the wobbly state of the newspaper business is in focus-but presented in tones of preemptive mourning rather than celebration. In both films, loving shots of the running printing press-symbolic high volume truth-dispensers, keepers of democratic faith-are reminiscent of such films as Deadline U.S.A., except that the presses may soon go the way of the dinosaur, so we hear.
Realities grim and otherwise aside, State of Play has issues as a film. While an exciting enough ride, the plot thickens to the point where it becomes hard to swallow.