“State of Play” is an intermittently intelligent Capitol Hill thriller based on a celebrated 2003 BBC miniseries. The story was Americanized by at least five competent Hollywood hacks, including Tony Gilroy, who wrote the similar “Michael Clayton,” one of George Clooney’s movies about a murderous corporate conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.
The new film starts out much like “Michael Clayton” and “Syriana,” just even more Ripped from the Headlines, with Ben Affleck as a Gary Condit-like Congressman. (Politics may be show business for ugly people, but Affleck’s convincingly wooden performance suggests that Congress is for handsome but mediocre thespians whose range is restricted to acting sincere.) The Representative’s Chandra Levy-like staffer, who is investigating a Blackwater-like mercenary-monger, gets hit by a subway train.
After the politician persuades his Silda Spitzer-like wife to stand by him at a news conference where he admits to the affair, he hides out in the disheveled apartment of his one-time college roommate, an old-fashioned investigative journalist at a declining Washington Post-like newspaper. The besieged Congressman discloses that he thinks his mistress was murdered because she was getting too close to the truth: the Blackwaterish firm is going to take over America with its private army.
Brad Pitt was cast as the reporter hero of “State of Play,” but walked away at the last moment due to script objections. I admired, however, the way the later plot developments undermined the clichés of Clooney’s conspiracy genre. The boring truth is that in America, politically connected CEOs seldom rub out their rivals. As the Rep. Jane Harman-Haim Saban wiretap scandal demonstrates, Washington conspiracies are mostly talk. Moreover, Russians and Mexicans scoff at the small sums that buy our politicos, such as the Congressman caught with $90,000 in his icebox. (Although now that so many trillions have gone up for grabs, perhaps we can hope our oligarchs will at least give us some satisfying entertainment in return for our bailout billions by starting to shoot each other over the money …)
With Pitt out, a pudgy Russell Crowe jumped in. Like Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski,” Crowe looks fat and happy in a role where abs don’t matter. Early in this decade, Crowe was the finest leading man in Hollywood, starring in “Gladiator,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Master and Commander,” and “Cinderella Man.” Since then, however, he seems to find himself with empty stretches on his schedule, perhaps because he’s seen as an ornery party animal. (On New Year’s Eve in 1999, while the rest of the world was timidly hunkering down in fear of Y2K glitches, Crowe celebrated with millennial gusto, getting himself arrested for disturbing the peace three times.) Crowe’s Aussie manliness carries him through his under-rehearsed role, and the celebrity’s personal distaste for journalists adds interest to what could have been a routine hagiography.
To chase down the conspiracy, Crowe’s veteran reporter teams up with a callow blogger (the ever-perky Rachel McAdams of “Wedding Crashers”). Much banter about the rivalry between print and online journalism ensues. Yet the movie misses the key personality difference between traditional media and the more Aspergery culture of the Web: newspaper reporters converse constantly, while Web people prefer Google to human contact. Young Matthew Yglesias, for instance, recently declared on his blog, “Definitely the whole time I was employed at The Atlantic I never once returned a voicemail. … In general, I’m not a fan of talking on the phone ...”
The movie portrays Crowe’s aging reporter as a solitary man, trudging alone to confront the powerful in their lairs. In reality, as Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop made clear, traditional reporters are most comfortable in packs, where they can gauge what’s “appropriate” to ask and to write from the consensus of their colleagues.
Just when the strident soundtrack (synthesizers and militaristic drums relentlessly barking “Tense up!”) and now-mandatory Shaky-Cam cinematography have almost ruined a decent if predictable story, an amusingly florid Jason Bateman (Arrested Development) shows up as a hedonistic public relations consultant, seemingly to contrast the greed of the flack with the nobility of the crusading journalist. The film’s countless screenwriters, though, are aware that reporters, such as the New York Times’ Judith Miller, who pipelined so much pro-Iraq war propaganda, are often just more respectable PR agents, publicizing messages in return for access to newsmakers.
From there, the movie keeps departing from its earlier Vast Corporate Conspiracy rut, ending with a plot twist that, while contrived, is surprisingly realistic.