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Here's The Scoop: 'State Of Play' Gets Political Thriller Right ****

(4 Stars)

April 17, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,

Nothing is as it seems in State of Play, a crackerjack political thriller in which no individual, profession or institution gets away clean.

Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) has said he prefers flawed heroes, and in State of Play, he presents audiences with a passel of them. Veteran journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) insists he's all about the truth, but regularly bends the rules he insists that he abides by. Crusading Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) cheats on his wife even while ridiculing other people's moral compasses. Columnist/blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) is more concerned with being snide than thorough. In this Rubik's Cube of a morality play, the operative question quickly becomes, "Is there anyone we can trust?"

The answer is no. And while that may not be good news for society at large, it's great news for the movie at hand.

Events are set in motion by the "accidental" death of a congressional investigator who, it turns out, was key in Collins' attempts to ferret the truth out of a Haliburton-ish defense contractor. Hard-boiled newspaperman McAffrey gets the story and goes at it full speed - until the connection to Collins turns up. McAffrey and Collins were college roommates and are best friends.

McAffrey doesn't ask off the story - any self-respecting newspaper would take him off it immediately - but he does reluctantly accept a partnership with Frye. She's altogether too young and disrespectful of traditional journalism for his taste, but turns out to be more of an asset than anyone would have thought.

State of Play is ridiculously, deliriously star heavy. Jason Bateman and Jeff Daniels turn up in small, but key, roles, while Oscar nominee Viola Davis (Doubt) turns up as a coroner with an attitude. Crowe is especially effective, torn between loyalty to his friend and to a job he approaches with almost religious zeal, but everyone turns in good work.

Macdonald, who cut his directing teeth with documentaries, keeps things moving with a welcome, straight-ahead momentum, allowing the story to ratchet up without unnecessarily showy camera pyrotechnics. And while those of us in the Fourth Estate may be quick to embrace a movie where journalism is seen as both heroic and essential, State of Play is hardly a full-hearted embrace of the work journalists do.

Neither McAffrey nor Frye are heroes for the ages, and their editor, as played by Helen Mirren, is obsessed with the bottom line in a way that should make anyone without a seat on the New York Stock Exchange uncomfortable.

Still, in this time of crises throughout the newspaper industry, it's nice to see a movie stake the claim that professional journalists and the work they do matter. State of Play comes across as a 21st-century All the President's Men, and that's a good thing for journalism, for the movies and for anyone enthralled by a suspenseful, labyrinthine mystery. In the end, everyone wins.

State of Play

(Universal Pictures) Starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Rated PG-13 for violence and language. Time 127 minutes.

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