There are lots of movies on my List of Shame. If it was released before the 60s, there’s a solid chance I haven’t seen it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it! So you can come here to read about my first experience with movies I feel like I should have probably watched by now. And this isn’t limited to older classics. If it’s a movie I’m interested in, but just happened to miss, Playing Catch-Up is the series where you can find my thoughts on it!
I chose to watch State of Play (2009) basically out of happenstance. I was scrolling through Netflix options and saw a movie headlined by Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, and Ben Affleck. As is often the case when I find a movie with an intriguing cast, I take a trip over to IMDb to get a sense of what people typically think of the movie. If its scores are middling to good, then I’ll usually throw it on my watchlist for a later date. But this one struck me at the right time and was the kind of movie I didn’t know I was in the mood for when I initially scrolled past it.
The film immediately sets itself up for intrigue and mystery. Two men are shot in a Washington D.C. alley — one was being chased by the killer and the other was a pizza delivery guy who just happened to witness the murder — and a young woman is hit by a D.C. subway. But we don’t know if she jumped in front of the train, if she was tripped, or was pushed. And it just so happens that the woman was having an affair with U.S. Congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck).
I really appreciated what this movie did genre-wise. It’s a political/journalism thriller with sparse action and is not based on a true story (though it is based on a BBC series of the same name). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy political thrillers based off true stories like Argo, All the President’s Men, or Spotlight, but sometimes it’s nice to see a story that’s total fiction yet feels like it could take place in the real world. The Ides of March, which came out two years later, is another good example. They remove any of the baggage that comes along with adapting a true story and allow the movies to succeed in their own right.
This is what makes State of Play really good. It weaves in themes of political corruption (which is wide ranging in the film), loyalty, and journalistic ethics. There are twists and turns along the way that keep you engaged. And the twists and turns don’t just happen for the sake of entertainment or audience engagement — they work on both a story level and thematic level. When the story is working to serve the theme and vice versa, that’s when you know a movie has hit its sweet spot.
The political corruption is the main big idea, as Collins’ affair is the center of everything that happens in the film. And as it turns out, the woman with whom he was having an affair was actually sent to infiltrate his office to get details on a monopolistic defense contract Collins was working on with a private company, PointCorp, which would in effect privatize all of U.S. security. This revelation sets off a whole new chain of events that I won’t get into for sake of spoilers (again, as of this writing the film is on Netflix!).
Of course, like any good investigative journalism movie, this has overcommitted journalists working around the clock to get to the bottom of the story and expose the corruption. Cal McAffrey (Crowe) is Collins’ college roommate (which introduces conflict of interest questions) and Della Frye (McAdams) is new on the scene at the Washington Globe, the fictional newspaper made up for the film. These two excellent actors carry the movie. Crowe has a specific type of acting range that fits the actor that he is and, for a movie that was originally supposed to star Brad Pitt in the role, Crowe absolutely owns it. McAdams, on the other hand, should play more journalists. I love her as an actress — she’s one of my favorites — but it seems like since Mean Girls, she’s been relegated to mostly comedic roles or the love interest for the main man (About Time, Sherlock Holmes, Midnight in Paris, Southpaw, among many others). She’s typically great in these roles, but when I see her star in something like State of Play or Spotlight, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, I see her acting chops and wish she would do more movies like that. But hey, she’s successful, talented, and has made a name for herself so I don’t begrudge her for the movies she chooses to do.
Aside from the three main actors, this movie is a who’s who of people who were or now are big stars. Helen Mirren, Robin Wright, Harry Lennix, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Viola Davis, and David Harbour all have roles in the film and raise its overall pedigree. Out of all these big names, Affleck is the only one who doesn’t quite seem to be the right fit for the role. The best I can say about his performance is that he holds his own while the others act circles around him. But he’s Ben Affleck and when he’s on, he’s on. He’s allowed to have a miss in his filmography every once in a while.
State of Play has a lot of the tropes that we’ve come to recognize from this kind of film — the sleepless reporters, the “journalism is important!” theme, corruption, and ethics. But it’s able to work all those pieces into what I think is a great movie. I’m honestly surprised it doesn’t get talked about more, because it has a whole lot going for it.