As dense as a Watergate-era newspaper and as immediate as a blog, State of Play is an absolutely riveting state-of-the-art "big conspiracy" thriller. It's an often-brilliant collision of political scandal, murder, a privatizing military and the rapidly evolving journalism that might remain democracy's watchdog once news papers — "instant history" — are rendered history by a culture that has abandoned them.
An all-star cast headed by Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck Americanizes (somewhat) and gives the Hollywood touch to what began as a terrific BBC-TV thriller in 2003. It's the story of a scruffy but accomplished reporter (Crowe) using and protecting his college roommate (Affleck), now a congressman, when the House member's secret girlfriend mysteriously dies and scandal erupts.
Reporter Cal suspects there's more to this death than a simple D.C. subway suicide. His rattled onetime pal, Congressman Collins, seems to catch on, too. Maybe this Blackwater-ish defense contractor who is being investigated by Collins is to blame.
Cal reluctantly brings in the Washington Globe's fresh-faced and snarky new political blogger (Rachel McAdams) on the story.
"I'm just trying to help you get a few facts in the mix the next time you upchuck online," he says.
The veteran reporter forgets his ethics as he digs for his friend and sees connections between the subway suicide and a murdered pickpocket. The blogger struggles to learn basic legwork of reporting on a story that has murderous implications.
Robin Wright Penn is the wife wronged by the affair, Jeff Daniels is the political heavyweight struggling to do damage control, and Helen Mirren is the feisty editor (Bill Nighy played the role on TV) who curses and demands a story "before it's ready." State of Play is an embarrassment of acting riches, with Oscar nominee Viola Davis having a one-scene cameo as a coroner, Jason Bateman making a brief, pivotal appearance and Harry Lennix as the most hard-boiled of hard-boiled cops.
In condensing the British series (set in London at Parliament) into a compact two hours, some of the political flavor is lost and some of the surprises, frankly, spoiled — revealed abruptly. But the charismatic cast, brisk pacing and snappy dialogue (writers Billy Ray, Matthew Carnahan and Tony Gilroy are credited) mask some of those shortcomings. Crowe makes his character the life of the piece: quick-witted, sarcastic, bluff and smart. But is Cal as smart as he thinks?
State of Play is a puzzle picture, all too ready to take us down one primrose path only to trip us and make us consider another. And then another. The last of those misdirections seems unnecessary, but director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) keeps the pulse pounding and the mind racing as he juggles the film's several plots, always with his ear tuned to the last word of that title: Play.