Here’s the scoop: Russell Crowe is going to save American democracy with print journalism. (Note the print part; it’s important.) In State of Play, he plays the daily-newspaper reporter as a fierce, noble underdog. Crowe’s character, Cal McAffrey of the fictional Washington Globe, drives a 19-year-old Saab and types his stories on a 16-year-old PC. (How he networks with other newsroom computers is anyone’s guess.) His desk is a junk heap, and personal hygiene isn’t his strong suit. He nabs stories the old-fashioned way, by developing friendships with cops and medical examiners. He’s never even seen his paper’s website.
All well and good. But the scrappy, truth-loving journalist is as much a stereotype as is the maverick cop. And McAffrey steps into maverick territory himself when he starts investigating the death of a young researcher for a rising-star senator (Ben Affleck) who just happens to be his college roommate and intimate friend.
From a J-school point of view, writing stories about your buds won’t fly. But neither Crowe’s tough-as-nails editor (Helen Mirren) nor anyone else suggests he should take himself off the case, even as it becomes clear that Affleck and the dead woman had more than a professional relationship. After all, McAffrey can’t help it that he just keeps stumbling over sources, such as a junkie hoarding photos that suggest the aide was murdered. And he certainly can’t turn the whole story over to Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a perky young Globe blogger who desperately needs the traditional-journalism tutorials only he can provide.
If this synopsis sounds a bit snide, that’s because director Kevin McDonald and his writing team (including Tony Gilroy of Michael Clayton and Duplicity) have taken what feels like a multilayered, provocative saga of journalists and their conflicted loyalties and turned it into a drab drama about a blowhard and his John Edwards-esque pal. The problem with Crowe’s character isn’t that he’s obnoxious but that he’s generic; he doesn’t endear himself to viewers in any way we haven’t seen a hundred times before. Likewise, the banter between him and McAdams feels tired. When she asks whether Affleck was sleeping with the staffer, he snipes back, “I don’t know. I’ll have to read what some blog says so I can form my opinion.” Take that, Information Age!
Gilroy and Co. appear to have played up the print-versus-web squabbling to give State of Play a topical angle over its source, an acclaimed BBC series from 2003. McAffrey’s furious disdain for the blogosphere is hardly surprising in an age when we hear the death of print media predicted daily. (The difference between the two, he maintains, is as simple as “truth” versus “bullshit.”) But the debate has no chance to work itself out, because Della the blogger offers no arguments in favor of blogs. Instead, she quickly becomes McAffrey’s admiring apprentice, and the drama’s interest shifts to the clean-cut senator and his efforts to bring down a Blackwater-like military contractor, coldly observed by his shifty-eyed wife (Robin Wright Penn).
State of Play wants things both ways: It’s not as tense or action-oriented as a thriller, but it’s punchier and less plausible in its treatment of journalism and government than, say, “The Wire.” Unlike the grubby reporters in Zodiac, Crowe is always at the center of the most important thing happening. But we never get much sense of the history he and Affleck share. (It doesn’t help that they look like they belong to different generations.) McAdams’ character is all in her wide eyes, and the other reporters, who might have shown entertaining quirks, serve solely as an audience for McAffrey’s shenanigans.
In fact, the only actor who makes a memorable impression is Jason Bateman, playing a sleazeball publicist who vamps, whines and growls his way through an interview that reveals key information. He’s not a symbol of New Media, Old Media or Leadership; he’s just a messed-up weirdo who happens to know some stuff. And, whether they’re print diehards or Twitter fiends, real journalists know cultivating weirdos who know some stuff is what their job is all about.