Director Kevin Macdonald successfully revives the 1970s-style paranoid thriller with State of Play, a taut and assured reworking of the 2003 BBC series of the same name. Paring down the original six-hour series to a lean 127 minutes, Macdonald and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray barely give the audience a moment to breathe as a veteran reporter and a doe-eyed blogger race through the streets of Washington, D.C., to uncover an ominous political conspiracy.
The story gets under way with two seemingly unrelated incidents: the morning after a low-level drug dealer and a pizza deliveryman are gunned down in a dark alley, a congressman's aide is pushed in front of a moving subway train. When the latter is reported as a suicide by the media, speculations of foul play begin to emerge after the aide's boss, rising U.S. congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), tearfully announces her death on live television. Collins' old college roommate is Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), a reporter for the Washington Globe, who openly resents the preferential treatment given to inexperienced underlings like Washington Globe Capitol Hill blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams). As the chairman of a committee overseeing defense spending, Congressman Collins is currently on a campaign against rogue government contractors profiting from the "Muslim terror gold rush" abroad. Beholden to no one, these contractors seem increasingly poised to make their presence known in the U.S., where they are gradually gaining a foothold. When McAffrey discovers that the deceased aide was in fact Congressman Collins' primary researcher in the case against the government contractors, suspicions of conspiracy lead him on a treacherous investigation pointing to corruption at the highest levels of government.
State of Play is the kind of thriller that starts with a bang and throws in enough twists to tie your brain in knots as the layers of deception are stripped away to pose some genuinely frightening questions: Are we already at the point where independent defense contractors can gun down American citizens within the U.S. without fear of repercussion? If so, how could this have happened while U.S. citizens remain fatally unaware? And what could entice soldiers who once defended their country abroad to now set their crosshairs on innocent Americans? Is it really all about the money?
Unfortunately for McAffrey and Frye, the answers to these questions may come at the cost of their own lives; the stakes are high from the very first scene, and while Carnahan, Gilroy, and Ray smartly inject some tension-breaking humor into the mix, the primary focus of the screenplay is to keep viewers constantly guessing as they chew their cuticles raw. Thanks to some stylish directing by Macdonald, clever cutting by editor Justine Wright, an occasionally dissonant score by composer Alex Heffes, and a stellar cast, the end product is a tightly coiled thriller that recalls such landmark films as Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View and All the President's Men. And by cleverly raising questions about print versus online media, the screenwriters manage to instill the tried-and-true political thriller with a satisfying contemporary twist. While the primary players are all in top form, it's supporting performances by Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn, and Jason Bateman that make State of Play compulsively watchable. Bateman in particular injects the film with a healthy dose of humor and energy in the third act, when he appears in the role of a pill-head PR agent who could hold the key to blowing the entire investigation wide open. A rare treat for cinema lovers starved for the days when scruffy newspaper reporters fearlessly sniffed out corruption, State of Play delivers the kind of conspiratorial thrills that would have made Pakula proud.