State of Play opens Friday throughout the Triangle
State of Play, directed by Kevin MacDonald (Last King of Scotland), is a jaunty, efficient journalism thriller adapted from a British miniseries. While its plot is fueled by a healthy dose of paranoia about the link between murders of Washington, D.C., citizens and the privatization of homeland security, much more captivating is the depiction of the rivalry between online and print media.
To give it more credit than it might deserve, as its plot literally involves the Watergate Hotel, State of Play is a kind of All the President's Men for the digital age.
"Washington Globe" reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) must connect the dots between an investigation led by Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), the mysterious death of Collins' mistress on the D.C. metro, and the professional execution of a petty thief and a pizza delivery guy. After looking into the murder of the small-time crook, Cal is confronted in the newsroom by Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), who writes a political blog for the paper's Web site. She's looking for a scoop on Congressman Collins, who she's learned was a college chum of Cal's. A few quips show that Cal isn't too keen on digital media. His sassy dismissal of Della makes him seem either like a clever traditionalist hazing a rookie or an arcane doofus out of touch with his own industry.
Inevitably, Della and Cal team up; surprisingly, McAdams and Crowe are a fun onscreen duo. McAdams dumbs down Della by playing too cute, but her believable optimism cuts into Crowe's clichéd shtick. Crowe, as usual, is an indignant meathead, but he doesn't quite get away with it around McAdams the way he does with kindred (if more likeable) ham hocks like Al Pacino or Denzel Washington. In this film, he represents an endangered medium, so it's necessary for his character to have a foil in McAdams: He lumbers forward in the frame while McAdams talks to him, bouncing backward down aisles of files in some back room of the Globe. It's clear from the way they move: She will adapt and he won't.
One of the key suggestions that State of Play makes is that good reporting—double-sourcing and fact-checking—takes time, as Cal repeatedly demands that his editor wait until they have their facts straight to go to print. It's nice that State of Play—a movie that could have cruised on its sleek and efficient momentum—foregrounds a contemporary question about its milieu's current state: Where is print news headed, and what does it mean that it's losing the battle with the blogosphere? (Triangle viewers should keep their eyes peeled for a glimpse of the News & Observer, and note that it's not on paper.) Unfortunately, the film refuses to ask the necessary follow-up questions; I found myself wondering not only how often a major paper would really wait to go to print at one reporter's insistence, but what it means that soon there could be no such thing as going to print at all. While papers must rely on Web-based methods of disseminating news in order to be timely and relevant, it's unlikely that major newspapers can survive in a Web-only format. What model will replace newspapers?
State of Play cops out on its storyline involving the link between corporations, Iraq and homeland security, blaming a few baddies instead of indicting the system. But this is a major studio production, so that's no surprise. What's disappointing is the way this movie uses its final scenes and closing title sequence to be defiantly ignorant about the fact that news breaks online, not over morning coffee at the breakfast table. In the end, Della doesn't post the big scoop to her blog but waits for it to go to print, as State of Play attempts to evade the inevitability of the very shift in paradigm that it chose to address from its opening scenes. It's a romantic idea, but it's not truthful reporting.