There is a rich tradition in film of taking a political thriller and putting it squarely in the cross hairs of an investigative journalist -- think "All the President's Men," "The Killing Fields" and "The Year of Living Dangerously." "State of Play" definitely wants to join that crowd, and with a cast headed by Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Helen Mirren, you'd expect all the stars to align.
Yet instead of another classic, what director Kevin Macdonald has given us is a meandering movie that sometimes hits dead center and sometimes misfires dismally, resulting in a drama more tangled than taut.
There are all sorts of reasons why this particular intersection is such an intriguing one to filmmakers: the stakes are always high, whether it's lives or a country's future on the line; the DNA of investigative journalists is not unlike a Michael Vick pit bull -- they are programmed to go for the kill; nothing is ever quite as it seems, which, with luck, keeps us guessing until the final denouement; and there is that precious high moral ground that flawed humans are clawing to take.
Inspired (and, if you've seen it, overshadowed) by the exceedingly fine 2003 BBC miniseries, the film is set in Washington in what feels like the later days of the Bush administration when disillusionment was running high and a fresh-faced congressman with a fistful of integrity could make a mark. Two seemingly unrelated murders jump-start the action, at least one coming with a juicy, and familiar, Beltway back story: beautiful young aide involved with her married boss -- Affleck as Congressman Stephen Collins, whose rapid ascent on the back of a congressional hearing into corporate high jinks just might be derailed now.
Collins' old college roommate, Cal McAffrey (Crowe), is a hard-boiled investigative reporter now with a Washington Post-styled newspaper, madly trying to crack the case before the cops or the competition. In short order, it's hard to tell whether Collins is more valuable to McAffrey as his friend or as an extremely well-placed source.
Though there are many players in keeping with Washington's legions of the self-interested, the narrative circles around three -- the beefy and unkempt veteran journalist (does Hollywood create any other kind?), the polished-to-a-high-sheen politico and a newspaper industry, like the politician, fighting for its life.
McAdams comes into the picture as a hyperaggressive new-generation blogger, essentially serving as little more than a tote bag of a collaborator for Crowe rather than a real window into the friction between Web and print; and Mirren gives us a finely executed Kay Graham-styled newspaper editor, whose acerbic tongue and desperation are equally lethal.
As he sometimes has in recent years, Crowe seems not all that interested in his character, who could have used some of the roguish charm he brought to "3:10 to Yuma." Meanwhile Affleck struggles to give texture and depth to his compromised congressman. That presents a real problem for "State of Play," which needs these two characters to feed off of each other to work.
That McAffrey slept with the congressman's wife (Robin Wright Penn) years ago, which should have cast a shadow on the relationship, results in nothing more than a few throwaway moments with no payoff other than a little screen time for Penn, who wears years of disappointment and resignation well.
When the characters are on the move, the film works, whether it's Crowe's pressuring (and secretly videotaping, which I'm pretty sure we're not allowed to do) a source for information on one of the murders, or Penn at Affleck's side facing down the chorus of humiliating questions from reporters about his infidelity, essentially taking that vow of silence we see all too often in the nation's capital.
The filmmakers know how to mine political and journalistic turf for tension. Macdonald took us inside the treacherous palace of Uganda's Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland." And the extensive screenwriting team includes Matthew Michael Carnahan ("The Kingdom"), Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton"), Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass") and some uncredited revisions by Macdonald friend Peter Morgan ("Frost/Nixon").
Yet despite all of their experience in those very same trenches, somehow when "State of Play" should be at its stomach-clenching best, the tension simply evaporates.
What the film does well is to remind us that when corporations with billions of dollars at stake come to Washington, someone besides the politicians better be watching. In the world Macdonald has created, a nettlesome press willing to dig through all the numbers, the subterfuge and the garbage literal and otherwise, remains our last best hope -- it's just not as fearsome and passionate a place as it should be.
'State of Play'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence, language including sexual references, and brief drug content
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: In wide release