From The Insider to Body of Lies, Oscar-winning, Australian actor Russell Crowe seems comfortable doing films dealing with American political issues. With this murder mystery, he slips back into familiar turf. I don't recall Crowe ever playing a newspaper reporter, but this true-to-life tale of a corporate conspiracy with political ties certainly echoes his aforementioned films.
Crowe plays a middle-aged reporter named Cal McAffrey who works for a major daily newspaper in Washington, DC. As is common knowledge now, newspapers as an industry are failing. Circulation and readership are all declining. As a result, advertising revenue is diminishing. That has, in turn, resulted in a lot of unemployment, cutbacks, and even some newspapers shutting down.
Helen Mirren (The Queen and Gosford Park), who plays Cameron Lynne, realizes this as the editor of the paper. This is why she constantly pushes McAffrey to deliver good and compelling stories. She's a tough, no-nonsense gal.
And, what she knows really sells papers are juicy and intriguing stories that her paper can deliver fast and first, what's commonly known as a scoop. When a young woman, Sonya Baker, dies who's connected to a powerful congressman who happens to be McAffrey's old roommate, Lynne sees an opportunity for a big scoop.
Ben Affleck plays Stephen Collins, the idealistic yet embroiled congressman who is at the center of the controversy of the woman's death, which looks like murder by way of big business. Collins is part of a congressional committee investigating Pointcorp, a defense contractor comprised of ex-military guys who get paid for lending aid in war-torn countries like Iraq.
Collins has taken a hard line against Pointcorp because he thinks it's a corrupt organization. Pointcorp is loosely based on the real-life Blackwater USA, which was also accused of mercenary actions and corrupt dealings in Iraq.
All of this becomes very complicated but plays out in a very smartly written script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray, three writers whom I respect and whom have all done excellent political thrillers previously. There is also a good amount of emotion mixed with the intrigue. Balanced with doses of danger, as a murderer is unleashed, this film is intelligently tense.
All of the acting is top notch. Crowe and Mirren have some great moments together, but I have to take note of Affleck's performance. In my mind, Affleck hadn't handed in a good one since Shakespeare in Love. He surprised many, including me, with his remarkable turn as George Reeves in Hollywoodland.
Here I would say Affleck is selfsame, if for no other reason than for his reaction at the near end when his character hears a shocking truth by way of a videotape. The look on Affleck's face is so powerful that you feel everything he does, as he goes from shock, anger, and sadness in the arc of a minute or two, and you believe every second of it.
Even acting performances from the smaller roles like Michael Jace, Robin Wright Penn, Jeff Daniels, and Jason Bateman who plays a smooth, slick, but ultimately scared PR representative, are excellent. Director Kevin MacDonald who directed Forest Whitaker to his Oscar in The Last King of Scotland has assembled a great cast and moves them within his frame very well.
There's a twist at the very end, which like some critics, including Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, I didn't enjoy, but I could somewhat forgive because everything else is stellar. Yet, what I think I like the most is that this film is so much like an elegy. There's a sequence that illustrates the ins, outs, and in-betweens of a printing press. The way it's played it might as well be something you see in the Smithsonian Museum.
Yet, ironically, the entire movie makes the argument why reporters who worked under the structure of print news are better for the job of cracking hard news than those who work under that of online news. McAffrey is partnered with a blogger named Della Frye, played by Rachel McAdams (The Notebook and Wedding Crashers), who is a good journalist, skilled and effective, but there are certain conventions and qualities she doesn't have.
The film along the way is a debate between old school and new school journalism. It's a hyper examination that puts people's lives in jeopardy, accentuating the moral dilemmas to their max. Yet, the filmmakers save that sequence of the printing press to show at the most opportune time for us to appreciate it.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for some violence and language
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 7 mins.