As newspapers continue to flail about, desperately attempting to postpone their long, clumsy deaths, there'll be at least one unforeseen casualty in Hollywood: the contemporary journalistic thriller. From All the President's Men to Zodiac, there's something about the buzzing rush of a newsroom and frantic scribbling in notebooks that translates unexpectedly well to the big screen, bringing with it a strangely exhilarating sense of risk and righteousness.
In State of Play, schlubby newspaper reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe, looking as schlubby as it's possible for Russell Crowe to look) is of the old school: He can't refer to blogs without sneering, and he warns a source that if they don't listen to him, they'll fall prey to "the bloodsuckers and bloggers." But despite his pride and skill, McAffrey's fictional Washington DC paper is spiraling downward, with a recent takeover by a media conglomerate and a newfound focus on blogs and eye-catching graphics.
But faster than you can say "conflict of interest," trusty ol' McAffrey gets a trusty ol' news story. McAffrey's college roommate, Senator Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck, expertly utilizing his smarmy charm), finds himself in the midst of a sordid scandal—and it might be linked to a suspicious murder McAffrey's already investigating. "Am I talkin' to my friend now, or am I talkin' to a reporter?" Collins asks McAffrey, and McAffrey's response—"I have to be both"—kicks State of Play's impressively layered narrative into gear. But soon, McAffrey's forced to team up with adorable, naïve blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams)—who, conveniently enough, could stand to learn a thing or two about real reporting. (Or what "real reporting" is in movies, anyway: lots of ominous music, tense chases through shadowy parking garages, and research montages.)
Considering how much there is to State of Play—it's based on a six-hour-long BBC drama, and it feels like it—it's pretty damn impressive that the film works as well as it does. Despite throwing in hot-button issues about no-bid contracts, political corruption, and private military contractors, and then adding some melodrama between McAffrey and Collins' wife (Robin Wright Penn), and then shoehorning in a hilariously douchebaggy Jason Bateman as one of McAffrey and Frye's sources, director Kevin Macdonald somehow keeps State of Play fluid, engaging, and surprising, even if the climax is a bit too sensational for its own good.
But that's kinda the charm of this sort of movie: It wouldn't be a journalistic thriller if the entire fate of the world wasn't on a lone reporter's shoulders. When McAffrey shouts, "This is as big and connected as it gets!", it's impossible not to root for the guy—he's got a huge story, and the only way he knows to tell it is slowly and irrevocably fading away.
The subgenre of thrillers about intrepid journalists is a small one, sure—and for all I know, maybe these movies are only truly thrilling for those few of us who still work in print journalism. But I suspect not: When they're done right, as State of Play mostly is, they pack an authoritative, heady punch. I'd love to be proven wrong, but I'm guessing that feeling won't quite come across when we get our first journalistic thriller about a very determined Twitterer.