‘State of Play’ movie review: Ben Affleck, Russell Crowe in political thriller

There’s a fascinating story about the death of print journalism inside Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play; too bad it’s wrapped inside a rather routine political thriller. 

Not that the thriller is bad (though it is a bit muddled) but it hits the usual notes, and detracts from the real compelling stuff here: the inner-workings of a big city newspaper in this age of bloggers. 

State of Play opens with a double-shooting: a junkie shot execution-style, a passing pizza delivery man in a coma, Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) investigating. 

Meanwhile, Sonia Baker apparently commits suicide by jumping in front of a train; she was chief researcher for Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) in his big case against big war-profiteering corporation PointCorp. She was also his mistress. 

McAffrey has an inside track on the Baker story: he’s Collins’ old college roommate (now, Crowe is eight years older than Affleck and looks 15, but this is the least of the film’s implausibilities). 

Globe blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) attempts to use that connection, but McAffrey shoots her down. When Collins shows up at McAffrey’s apartment and reveals that Baker’s death could not have been a suicide, McAffrey begins to investigate, and finds some connections with his double shooting to boot. 

Frye, in typical blogger style (or at least, print journalism’s view of blogger style) runs her take on Collins without much regard for fact-checking. McAffrey has little choice but to team up with her on a multi-layered investigation of Baker, Collins, and PointCorp, under the visage of editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren). 

There are, as expected, compelling twists and turns along the way, and it’s all engrossing till the final twist, which invokes that age-old cliché of the true villain revealing himself in a minor dialogue slip-up (“wait a minute, how did you know about such-and-such?”). 

The stars are perfectly serviceable, with Crowe especially fun as the scruffy reporter, but Mirren’s editor, mourning the death of journalistic standards, provides the film’s backbone. 

And Jason Bateman absolutely steals the film in a key third-act performance that infuses State of Play with some much needed comedy, and surprisingly, heart. 

There are two really interesting themes here, the first being the slow death of print journalism in the internet age, the second being the ethics of the business of war, with PointCorp making a bundle off providing mercenary services not just abroad, but at home too (“we were the first in New Orleans after Katrina”). 

The film is too plot-heavy to do either real justice, but I appreciated a final, elegiac printing press montage. State of Play, like Soderbergh’s Traffic, was originally a well-regarded British miniseries. Six parts, an hour each, roughly 3 times the material. 

But you’d never guess that from this movie, which feels tight and well-paced, bolstered by (outside of Affleck’s senator) well-developed characters. Macdonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland) is a talented filmmaker and he’s pieced the film together well, though I can only guess what has been lost in the transition.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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