For newspapers, it’s been a traumatic twelve months. Just weeks ago, our heads were reeling from the shuttering of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, one of the nation’s best-respected papers. From the razing of the multi-Pulitzer-winning newsroom of the L.A. Times to the shrinking pages of the New York Times, and a projected $90 million budget shortfall this year at the Boston Globe, it really couldn’t be much worse.
So you can understand why Cal McAffrey (played by Russel Crowe in the film STATE OF PLAY) has become a crumudgeon. He’s been a reporter for “The Washington Globe” for fifteen years (and writes on a sixteen-year-old computer – surprising that it’s not a manual typewriter). Della Frye (Rachael McAdams, as tart as ever, but strangely looking much younger), a sharply-stylish go-getter to the rumpled, puffy, long-haired Cal lurking in a cube festooned with paper scraps like a hamster cage, drops by his desk.
Della writes the Washington blog, updating it practically as fast as ideas can come into her head. William Holden said to Faye Dunaway, in the film “Network”: “You are television, Diana.” You can imagine Cal saying the same thing to Della, only about corporate news. For a newsosaur like Cal, the changes the paper is experiencing are synonomouos with a loss of integrity.
Della is a little awed by Cal’s reputation or very good at flattery (probably both). She tries to weasel a quote out of him. Was McAffrey’s old friend, an embattled Congressman (played by Ben Affleck – more movie stars on the way) – bonking his research assistant? If not, why did he cry, on camera, when told of her apparent suicide? Cal tells Della exactly where to go: “I’d have to read a half-dozen blogs to form an opinion.”
But as Cal burrows deeper into his own assignment – a drug-related double shooting – his nose (like all movie reporters, it gets him into trouble as much as makes him brilliant) sniffs something out: perhaps his story, and Dellas, are converging.
This plot is pleasantly complex; it keeps you guessing, if not involved. But you might compare the story to a Ford Taurus. Yes, it gets you where you’re going – but you’ve driven this thing before, there’s one in everybody’s driveway, and a thrill, it ain’t.
Luckily, there are enough movie stars loitering about that the film is fun to watch. In addition to those already mentioned, there’s Helen Mirren as the Globe’s editor, fighting against corporate bureaucracy that threatens the guts of the paper. The under-appreciated Robin Wright Penn is the Congressman’s wife (Cal has carried a torch forever), a smoky alternative choice to pert McAdams. Jason Bateman turns up, as a scumbag, and does well cast against his grain. Even Jeff Daniels is in this thing!
And not a one of them is even slightly convincing. Instead, the stars get to be stars. Take Ben Affleck as an example. He passed the spaghetti (to Crowe, I guess), and his high cheekbones, hollows under his eyes, and a diagonal muscle on his brow, are revelations. In fact, with the exception of Russel Crowe — who for my money looked most at home not in a loincloth, wielding a sword, but in a blousy shirt, aiming a musket – none of these actors has looked better. Helen Mirren, who can give Judy Dench a run for her money in the sex appeal department, has hair like spun honey.
STATE OF PLAY is not ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and it doesn’t need to be. In fact, director Kevin Macdonald even throws in a fun homage or two (consider the scene in which tension is built by Della simply taking notes while on the phone, or another sequence, a montage of doors slamming in in her face). Macdonald uses hyperactive TV music to prop up scenes that aren’t doing much — but the star power, the newspaper-vs.-blogs subtext, and a kinda-sorta tense cat-and-mouse game in that old thriller standby, the parking garage, are enough for a diversion.