The movie’s protagonist is Cal McAffrey, a distinguished if disheveled reporter at a Washington newspaper that has recently undergone a change of management. He finds himself drawn into an unpleasant situation when the mistress of his old college roommate, Stephen Collins—now a promising Congressman—dies on the subway tracks, putting Stephen’s career in jeopardy. Making things murkier, Stephen had been investigating a nasty and aggressive private security firm in the mold of Blackwater. And complicating matters still further, Cal once had a brief affair with Stephen’s wife, which has left Cal feeling guilty and eager to get right with Stephen by proving that he is being maliciously targeted.
State of Play stands in a marked contrast to the too-good-to-be-true portrayals of political journalists in two other recent movies. The screen adaptation of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, cast Sir David Frost’s interview with disgraced former President Richard Nixon as a heroic act that restored honor to the Republic, rather than a canny compromise between one man looking for validation and another for profit. And Nothing But the Truth, a retelling of the story of disgraced New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s pointless battle to conceal the identity of a source who had given her permission to reveal it, put a dewy Kate Beckinsale in prison garb to elicit our sympathy. Both movies are so eager to paint reporters as heroes that they edit history to do so.
There is no historical background to contend with in the State of Play. But neither is there much resemblance to such fictional journalistic romps as the classic His Girl Friday, in which Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell gleefully lock a murderer in a roll-top desk to preserve a scoop. State of Play isn’t about the kind of journalism inhabited by kicky career girls like the comic-strip heroine Brenda Starr, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Mary Richards – nor does it resemble the bad-guys-versus-good-guys world of clandestine saints like Clark Kent, or talky crusaders like Spiderman’s J. Jonah Jameson.
Rather, the journalists in State of Play are in the business because reporting is a compulsion for them—and because they aren’t suited for much else. Russell Crowe, playing Cal, sports a risible haircut that makes him resemble the basset hound that he is. The director conveys Cal’s dissolution with a shot in which three opened cans of beef stew drip onto the counter, as Cal pokes madly at a gooey vortex of instant mashed potatoes. At work, his desk is surrounded by a thicket of clippings set up to look like a stereotypical serial killer’s trophy wall ; at home, he stockpiles vast stacks of newspapers, and serves drinks in commemorative Steelers glasses.
The only aspect of his life that appears functional or grown-up is his journalism, and the events of State of Play challenge even that assumption. When the Collins story breaks, and his editor asks him whether he has a conflict of interest, he denies it with an obvious lie. When Stephen asks him “Am I talking to my friend now, or am I talking to a reporter?” Cal equivocates, saying “I’ve got to be both.” And when Anne Collins, Stephen’s wife, visits Cal in an attempt to rekindle their affair, Cal turns her down but asks her a question prompted by his reporting; he seems too bloated and lethargic to summon the energy to let himself be seduced, though he can still manage an interview. She seems simultaneously relieved and embittered by his reaction. “It’s okay,” Anne tells Cal after telling him what he needs. “Now I’m just a source, so the pressure’s off.”