Saturday, April 18, 2009

Catching up with "State of Play"

They did not screen "State of Play" here in Indianapolis, which I confess is mightily irksome to myself and the other local critics. One has to fight the urge to let one's opinion of a movie sour when those behind it don't think enough of their own film to let the critics see it beforehand.

That's especially true of movies about journalists. There's a long and mostly noble history of films about newsmen and newswomen, from "His Girl Friday" up to "All the President's Men," which is generally agreed to be the most accurate depiction of journalists. So the idea that they're reluctant to show a flick about journalists to journalists leaves a bitter taste.

"State of Play" slides confidently into the second tier of newspaper movies. It's a good, solid engrossing portrait of a scruffy reporter (Russell Crowe) digging into a sex scandal story surrounding an old friend of his, a young congressman played by Ben Affleck. It's directed by Kevin McDonald, who broke out a couple years back with "The Last King of Scotland."

What I liked most about it was the authenticity of the newsroom, the studied nonchalance of grizzled journalists, the ball-busting of the editor (played by Helen Mirren), who has to balance the desire to land the big scoop with the new faceless corporate owners who have taken over and value profits over quality.

Crowe has a relationship with a young blogger (played by Rachel McAdams) that is hostile at first, but slowly becomes more nurturing as she demonstrates she's got chops. At one point he complains to his boss, "I've been here 15 years and I've got a 16-year-old computer, and she's been here 15 minutes and has enough gear to launch a Russian satellite." I've heard very similar lines in newsrooms, where grousing is raised to an art form. Astonishingly, I learn from an article by a Washington Post reporter who served as a consultant on the movie that Russell Crowe ad-libbed that line himself.

The Ben Affleck character is leading an investigation of private military contractor that's gaining more and more control of the security job in Iraq, Afghanistan and at home, so the reporter is convinced he's being set up. But as he keeps digging, the story keeps showing more and more angles, and more and more people keep dying.

At some point the movie kind of gets lost in its own vortex of energy, with confrontational scenes with an expanding array of supporting characters (Jason Bateman has a brief but effective turn as a soulless but very human PR flack caught in the middle.) It becomes less about journalism and merely a potboiler. I also found it unlikely that both Crowe and McAdams get shot at in separate instances.

Still, it's never a dull moment, and gives viewers a little taste of the life of a newspaper journalist in 2009.

3 stars out of four

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