Kevin McDonald's State of Play is, for most of its running time, a tight, tidy, efficient thriller that combines two of our most durable melodramatic subgenres (the newspaper mystery and the conspiracy thriller) as smoothly as they've comingled since All The President's Men. Utilizing a crisp screenplay from a team of blue chip scenarists (based on the BBC mini-series), McDonald navigates a deliberately byzantine narrative, frequently focused by a fine ensemble cast fully inhabiting their admittedly stock characters.
Russell Crowe (doing some of his sharpest and most lived-in work since The Insider) stars as Cal McAffrey, a Washington, D.C. newspaper reporter investigating a seemingly random double murder in a rough neighborhood (the bravura opening sequence, showing that ruthless execution, is the most memorably breathless handheld open this side of Narc). The next morning, in a seemingly unrelated turn of events, the chief researcher for rising young congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) ends up underneath a subway train; it may or may not have been a suicide, but it's clear fairly quickly that her relationship with the congressman was more than professional.
The dirty details of that story are of great interest to Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), who writes for the online version of Cal's paper, but she goes to the older reporter looking for help, as he and the congressman were college roommates and (we find out later) Cal and Mrs. Collins (Robin Wright Penn) are more than a little friendly as well. Cal blows Della off (the old-school print reporter's distaste for the young blogger is a detail that plays very believably), but before too long--you guessed it--their stories end up intertwined. Just once in my life, I will see a mystery movie where the two seemingly unrelated mysteries stay that way right up through the end credits.
So that's a convention that we could do without, and some of the characterizations--particularly Helen Mirren's impatient editor and Jeff Daniels' smarmy, corrupt politico--have been done to death. But the film's three crackerjack screenwriters--Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom), Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), and the great Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton and the Bourne series)--imbue even the smallest characters with depth and dimension; there are so many good lines, even the walk-ons get some.
Also worth noting is the script's refusal to throw Cal and Della into bed together; that kind of unnecessary action is less frequent these days, but the restraint is still worth singling out. Their relationship takes on a mentor/pupil air around the end of the first act, and the duo does right by it--and besides, the age difference would be too distracting. Speaking of distracting age differences, I'm not sure what kind of hard living we're to believe Cal has been doing since college; suffice it to say that that graying of the temples doesn't help sell us on the idea that baby-faced Affleck and gruff Crowe, eight years his senior, are the same age. Affleck is passable if not exceptional--I've never jumped on the Affleck-hating bandwagon (the unfortunate turns of his career circa 2003-2004 were the result of bad script choices, not bad acting), though he seems to be unsuccessfully reaching in his more emotional moments here.
McDonald (The Last King of Scotland) gets the atmosphere of the newsroom right (particularly in its final, late-night scene) and orchestrates the picture competently, though it drags a bit in the middle--you'll know things are picking up when Jason Bateman struts in (he's becoming a more and more valuable utility player). From there, the various story threads pull together into a nice, compact, satisfying ending--and then the film pulls the string one time too many, unraveling the whole damned thing. I'm not sure who's to blame for the one-turn-too-many final beat (it may well have come from the source material), but it doesn't work; it feels like the writers are being clever purely for the sake of being clever.
It's doesn't derail the entire picture, by any means--there's still plenty to recommend here, from the performances to the sharp dialogue to the brisk, rat-tat-tat action scenes. But it is the moment where you feel a great movie becoming a very good one. State of Play is sharp and entertaining, and certainly solid enough to recommend a theatre viewing. But you may find yourself doing some re-edits of your own once it hits DVD.