I definitely think it’s the last movie that’s not a period movie that will be set in a newsroom. I do think it’s pretty sure that we’re seeing the end of newspapers, for better or for worse.
—Ben Affleck on The Rachel Maddow Show 16 April 2009
“Buy me a soda,” demands a skinny, pasty-white girl with bruised eyes. Cal (Russell Crowe), hunched by the soda machine, peers back over his should to see this young sad junkie, cadaverous and stereotypical. He does the right thing, offering her the one he’s just bought for himself, but Mandi (Sarah Lord) shakes her head: “Not diet.” And so Cal, intrepid reporter for a print daily in DC and all around decent guy, does the decent thing: he buys her a regular soda, nods respectfully, and moves on to his own important business, leaving her alone in the hospital waiting area.
You know, having watched the first few minutes of State of Play, that Mandi’s connected to the murder that Cal’s investigating. And Cal knows, having been in his business for decades, that you never know where your next lead will come from. And so these two will meet again, when Mandi comes to Cal with information about her dead friend and the scheme he was running, a small piece in the puzzle involving creepy congressmen, a Blackwaterlike mercenary company, Cal’s complicated romantic past, and the death of newspapers. It’s an ambitious set of issues undertaken by this Americanization and compression of a six-hour British miniseries of the same name, a few ridiculously rushed to resolution by film’s end and more wedged in under guise of predictable plotting.
Mandi’s story fits both categories, as she’s briefly crucial, then quickly peripheral and forgotten. This makes her much like any supporting figure in such a wide-ranging, not so surprising political thriller, which keeps its focus on the major players, whose stakes are manifestly personal. Cal is the most impressive of these, though his encounters with villains and motley types run the gamut from suitably entertaining (his back-and-forths with cops and doctors) to abjectly silly (a run-in with an assassin in a parking garage). When Cal convinces old friend and morgue doctor Judith Franklin (Viola Davis) to look the other way while he copies down numbers off a corpse’s cell phone, the scene compels by virtue of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto forced-perspective compositions as well as the excellent performers’ rhythms. But when Cal has to butt heads with his old college roommate, congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), the frame is considerably less lively. Partly, this effect has to do with Collins’ imperatives (he’s a show pony legislator, groomed by his elders and rarely convincing) and partly, it has to do with Cal’s urgent and earnest understanding of what’s really at issue—not the upsetting murder of the congressman’s pretty girlfriend (Maria Thayer), but her role in a much larger, more muscular and so-DC intrigue.
This relegation of the girlfriend to the story’s edges is expected, like the junkie girl’s relegation and that of Collins’ pretty wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn). While it looks for a minute like the interloping blogger Della (Rachel McAdams) might push her way into the main action, she doesn’t stand much of a chance. Instead, she stands here for the yucky future facing Cal and his real-newspapermen colleagues. Their boss Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) urges Cal to be nice to Della and extols her value to the company (“She’s hungry, she’s cheap, and she turns out copy every hour!”), but the girl still has to prove herself to the guys in the usual ways—surviving a bloody trauma, doing as she’s told, digging up useful info and then doing the right thing with it even when it runs up against her deadline.
Cal’s insider cool is marked by his regular customer status at Ben’s Chili Bowl and his tit-for-tat relationships with cops (he brings coffee to the crime scene for Harry Lennix’s homicide detective, then plays a familiar “confirm or deny” game with him to solicit story basics). He says he resents that Della gets a spiffy laptop (“She could launch a Russian satellite with the gear she’s got”) while he’s still tapping on an ancient desktop. This makes him the equivalent of the reporter with the fedora and cigar (he eats Cheetos for breakfast while navigating DC traffic), but more importantly, sets him up as the bastion of solid morality. So what if he hasn’t been a great best friend to Collins or former lover to Anne? When it comes to the truth—whatever that can possibly mean here—he’s for it. “I’m just trying to help you get a few facts in the mix next time you decide to upchuck online,” he goads Della, who responds with conventional indignation and interest.
This sort of banter leads to their productive teaming, of course, along with some questions about just how and why newspapers—as the most old-school incarnation of the free press—are important to a democracy. That Della comes to appreciate reporting (as opposed to upchucking) redeems her, as does Cal’s eventual approval of her work. (Cameron remains pretty much a lost soul, adhering to dictates from the company that threatens her, apparently every hour, with extinction if she doesn’t generate page views). Their romance—chaste and sometimes clever—makes the film’s case for newspapers as a moral mainstay amid a sea of corruption and meanness. As they come to appreciate what they can do for one another, Cal and Della also come to recognize their implacable opposition, and the film looks back fondly on the good old days never to come again (see also: Three Days of the Condor, in which the New York Times saves Robert Redford, or All the President’s Men, when Redford and Dustin Hoffman and the Washington Post save the nation).
In this new universe where facts are mutable and ends are means, so-called ethical triumphs can only be short-term. Much like Kevin Macdonald’s previous fiction film, The Last King of Scotland, this one provides martyrs, villains, and lessons learned; also like his last documentary, My Enemy’s Enemy (about Klaus Barbie), it insists on the costs of compromise, the essential hypocrisies of politics and business, reified in the (re)writing of history. If State of Play engages in its own plotty compromises to get to a clanking finale, it does, at least, keep in sight the broader mess. Mandi is unremarkable collateralish damage, yet she also embodies loss and self-awareness in ways Cal will never get.