State Of Play is based on the 2003 BBC mini-series of the same name. The television version was spread over six hours while this film version clocks in at just over two, most of it used efficiently in delivering a sharp political conspiracy thriller. The film underwent a painful birth, enduring numerous script rewrites and recasting of the male leads (Fight Club co-stars Edward Norton and Brad Pitt were replaced by Ben Affleck and Russell Crowe).
The story's setting shifts from its original London to Washington, D.C. and involves the apparent murder of a prominent Congressman's assistant, who he was having an extra-marital affair with. The fallout from the scandal reveals deeper implications involving a private government contractor and national security. Crowe plays Cal McAffery, a hard-nosed veteran reporter for the Washington Globe continually at odds with his crusty editor (an excellent Helen Mirren) and reluctantly paired with a rookie blog journalist (Rachel McAdams). The plot is complicated by McAffery's friendship with the Congressman (played by Ben Affleck). Affleck's performance is typically wooden - when I watch this guy act I'm always very aware of the fact he is acting. He just doesn't possess the ability to inhabit a role and deliver an effortless characterization without seemingly having to work so damn hard at it, which is distracting. He's got nothing on Keanu Reeves, mind you. Affleck's shortcomings as an actor weakens the relationship with Crowe's character (with whom he's supposed to be a longtime friend) and the two characters never gel. It's a different story with Crowe and Mirren, as the sparks fly between the two (and not the romantic type).
Jason Bateman and Jeff Daniels, two actors not known for portraying unappealing weasels play against type in doing just that. Bateman, in particular, is great fun as an unwilling informant. But the movie belongs to Crowe. With noticeable extra weight, unkempt long hair, stubble and shirts untucked, he just looks the part of an ink stained wretch who isn't afraid to ask tough questions and stir up crap in pursuit of the truth. He's the anti-Affleck, with an inherent gravity on display in virtually any role he assumes.
This is a film cut from the mold of All The President's Men and The Manchurian Candidate and the screenwriters, in particular, deserve high marks for their drastic restructuring of the story. It could have led to a complete mess, but instead results in a clever and entertaining thriller.