You need six things for a successful Washington thriller: a reporter, a Congressman, a dead girl, a choleric editor, some ugly secrets, and, for some reason, a chase inside a parking garage, not so sure why that last one seems to be so indispensable. “State of Play” has them all. You don’t necessarily need authentic Washington locations, but “State of Play” has that, too, and it is a pleasure to see more than the monuments, with real-life Washington landmarks like Ben’s Chili Bowl and the Americana Hotel providing an extra layer of realism.
There may be some of-the-moment gloss on this sharp Washington thriller, with references to hard times for newspapers and boom times for outsourcing national security, but its essence is struggles between power and accountability and that are always at the intersection of politics, money, and journalism and of course the movies about them, too.
Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck play former roommates with a lot of baggage — Crowe is a reporter for the “Washington Globe” and we can tell he has integrity because his apartment, car, hair, and clothes are such a mess no one would otherwise keep him around. The traditional cub reporter with more spirit than experience but who will show surprising grit and ingenuity before the third act has evolved into a blogger (Rachel McAdams). The traditional handsome young Congressman who may have compromised his ideals and his disappointed wife are played by Ben Affleck (good) and Robin Wright Penn (better). And the traditional peppery newspaper editor who wants copy NOW because every hour we delay print costs some astronomical sum and we’re losing our readers, dammit! (yes, that tradition stretches back to the movies of the 1930’s) is played with frosty fury by Helen Mirren.
There are chase scenes, including one in a parking lot, another standard for Washington thrillers. But the up to the minute details, sharp talk, smooth performances, and a couple of surprising twists hold the interest and keep us engaged.