It’s an interesting phenomenon – cinema, down the years, has by and large served the Fourth Estate very well. Choice examples such as Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), All the President’s Men (1976) by Alan J. Pakula, and Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999) are very much ancestors to Kevin McDonald’s State of Play (2009), which was itself originally a very highly rated Paul Abbott-written BBC mini-series directed by David Yates, back in 2003.
In short, the best films about the noble hack’s art deal with the importance of getting the story right, getting it first, and the price that often must be paid for finding out the truth.
Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland (2006)) proves himself more than adept at getting the best from his ensemble cast, led by Russell Crowe as maverick but principled Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey and his hard-bitten editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), who stumble upon a link between two seemingly unconnected deaths, a petty thief who is gunned down in an alley and the beautiful assistant to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who ‘falls’ in front of a subway train on the morning of the new Congressional hearings.
McAffrey, of course, spots a conspiracy in the wings – he has a turbulent past connection with the Congressman involving Collins’s wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn), but he wants to help and protect his old friend. However, as he and his ambitious young rookie-writer sidekick Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) begin to get closer to the truth, involving a corporate cover-up packed with insiders, informants and assassins, the risks to the investigators’ very lives become increasingly apparent. How much is a story worth?
Matthew Michael Carnahan and Tony Gilroy have done an excellent job of compressing the three-hour original into a tight, breathless 120 minutes, and the film’s greatest strength lies in its unsensational, sincere approach to the journalist’s daily grind. As with All the President’s Men, State of Play illustrates very well how even the biggest stories are nailed not by lightning flashes of inspiration, but rather the plodding, painstaking process of making the calls and getting people on the record. Crowe, on the other side of the coin here from his role in The Insider, is entirely believable as the newshound who’s prepared to put everything on the line, while Mirren excels (she seems incapable of doing otherwise these days) as his increasingly hacked-off boss.
Only the ending may seem a touch pat, striving for the final twist that seems a touch tacked-on, but this is still a fine, intelligent thriller demanding close inspection.