State of Play
A homeless man is shot to death in a dark Georgetown alley. Miles away, a beautiful young congressional staffer dies beneath the screeching wheels of a speeding subway train. Are they isolated, unrelated tragedies, or just two slivers of a massive conspiracy involving the highest echelons of government?
Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck, continuing to do a fine job redeeming himself for pretty much all of this decade's work) is a rising star. Astute, handsome and politically connected, he is the undisputed future of his party. But when his research assistant dies under questionable circumstances and he confesses to having had an illicit affair with her, Collins' political fortunes are called into question.
Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe with a gut as large as his hair is long) has been around the block a few times. A seasoned, no-nonsense reporter for The Washington Globe, Cal begins investigating the shooting of a homeless purse snatcher before coming to the conclusion that his death is far from random. When the man's murder becomes irrevocably linked to the mistress of Congressman Collins—once Cal's college roommate and best friend—he realizes there is much more going on than meets the eye.
Trying desperately (and not always successfully) to be both friend and reporter, Cal ignores the obvious conflict of interest and enlists the help of hungry, rookie blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams). Together, with their battleaxe of an editor (Helen Mirren) looking on apprehensively, the two intrepid reporters begin digging into the story, frequently endangering their own lives in the process. But the problem with digging is that you often end up uncovering things that were never meant to see the light of day. And you cannot help but come away dirty.
Without comprehending the ramifications of their actions or how high the conspiracy goes, Cal and Della stumble onto a titanic cover-up involving a defense department contract worth billions of dollars. PointCorp, a defense contractor which, we are told, represents nothing less than "the privatization of Homeland Security," stands in for real-life disgraced mercenary outfits like Blackwater (with a bit of Halliburton thrown in for good measure). Yesterday's outlandish is today's completely believable. And when that much money is at stake (one informant calls it "wrath of God money"), there isn't anything some people won't do to protect it.
Director Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland) has crafted a taut, knotty, pulse-pounding political thriller that gushes with the reflected glory of classic films like All the President's Men. Which is a bit of a pleasant surprise given the fact that State of Play is an abridged adaptation of a British television miniseries that set the action among Parliament and the fabled Fleet Street presses.
The credit for condensing what was considered an impossible adaptation clearly belongs to screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Duplicity, the Bourne trilogy). Gilroy's fingerprints especially are all over the narrative, which is complicated without being gratuitously bewildering. There comes a point at which you stop trying to figure it all out, confident you're already too many steps behind the script (there's a delightful change), and just allow yourself to unravel the mystery at the film's pace. As layer upon layer of the story is peeled back, the complexity grows, rather than recedes. Truth is never what it appears to be. This is the sort of film in which you're looking for the next twist right up to the point that the credits begin to roll.