Russell Crowe has again piled on the pounds for the sake of his art. Here, he is obliged to play a paunchy middle aged journalist with an office cubicle that looks like an explosion at a news-stand and post-it note factory. Once brilliant but perhaps now treated with some skepticism by the editor, at the fictitious “Washington Globe”, due to his tendency to see corporate and government conspiracies within every news item.

The newspaper room set scenes (all on a built and beautifully dressed set) are as good, if not better than those seen on “The Paper” and “All the Presidents Men”. What this movie adds, is the feeling that this whole world, the feel of the newsprint on your fingers, may not last much longer. Real hard news replaced by infotainment on blogs such as this one. This begs the question, when everyone is a casual journalist armed with a camera phone, is print news, dead, dying or just shedding another skin?

Call McAffrey (Crowe) used to roommate with the now Congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck), one can only hope that McAffrey kept his room tidier than his current digs and aging Saab. Whilst in the middle of hearings into the role of PointCorp (possibly standing in for a very real “Blackwater“), a private military company assisting with “outsourcing” work in Iraq and Afghanistan, Collins female lead researcher meets with an untimely end, in a pedestrian vs Washington metro train incident.

McAffrey is upset over the death and it soon becomes readily apparent, that he is somewhat more distraught than a dutifully caring employer really should be. Of course there is no scandal more appealing than a politician with his flies undone and events unravel fast.

McAffrey is caught between wanting to follow the story wherever it leads but is at least partially loyal to his former friend, despite his desire to get the story straight. This is also intermingled with a hefty slice of guilt, following his own earlier dalliance with the congressman’s wife.

As in all thrillers, people start to die and initially the connections make no apparent sense. The police are making no progress and despite his well cultivated Police department contacts, there is no substantive news to report. Well there would be, if only he we would leverage his friendship with the Congressman. Whether a real journalist could afford such scruples for a friend in high places, is debatable.

There is further intrigue as Jeff Daniels advises Collins to lay low.

“How low” he asks, “very low” is the answer. Of course such a paternalistic attitude, as most movie buffs know, usually belies deeper involvement.

McAffrey is assisted in chasing the story by the papers blogger (Rachel McAdams), who is a doe eyed cub reporter who “upchucks” unsubstantiated rumours onto the blogosphere. Starting as an innocent abroad, she receives a rude awakening of the stakes involved, when the hospital ICU ward turns into anything but.

The role of a free press and their responsibility to ongoing police work is touched upon, attempting to balance the “exclusivity” of information, sources and stories perhaps at the expense of, or adding to, further mayhem and death.

Helen Mirren plays the besieged Editor handing out cynicism and exasperation in equal measure. Neatly sandwiched between new bosses, who somewhat annoyingly want profits rather than quality reporting and the floppy haired likable “old school”, rogue that McAffrey represents.

“I know you were shot at and I should be making you a cup of tea or something but I am so fucking annoyed with you right now”, she says to McAffrey at one point.

Affleck is suitably polished, albeit a little young and the interaction with his “wronged” wife is played well, her ultimate decision and self delusion all too believable. Some might question how Collins and McAffrey would ever have been friends, as there appears little chemistry but both have clearly taken different paths in their lives.

Jason Bateman appears in an extended scene as a oily PR man mixed up in the intrigue but smart enough to know what and who he is dealing with. With some $4Billion international and allegedly $40Billion domestic at stake, a few civilian collateral damages are inevitable and barely noticeable.

The movie does have something to say about the “privatisation” of war and the project creep that may now be occurring, as commercial interests are used for and as an intrinsic part of US Homeland security. The truth of this of course is not for debate here but surely is not a large leap to make, in many minds that take an interest in the other side of the pond.

Interestingly, Brad Pitt and Ed Norton were originally cast but the writer’s strike caused Pitt to drop out and Affleck was a late replacement for Norton who became subsequently unavailable, maybe this is the reason for the comments above.

If we are looking for a stand out sequence, knocking on the wrong door, Crowes realisation and the subsequent underground car park chase, is the most telling scene in a movie that does not rely on explosions and gun battles every five minutes.

Effectively directed, by Kevin McDonald (Last King of Scotland) with believable dialogue, settings and plot and is clearly more commercial than LKOR. Based on the successful BBC TV series, this has obviously been condensed and given an effective American setting and manages to both respect and not detract from, it’s origins.

Watch out for the over credits sequence which follows the print run of the fictitious paper as it runs through the actual Washington Post’s presses, indicating what a laborious daily process this still represents

Summary

A smart, modern tense thriller with a realistic setting within the Washington corridors of power and a thumbnail view of modern print journalism, arguably in it’s final death throes.

A slight twist ending that manages to dissipate the created tension, audiences may have preferred a more clear cut outcome but this in no way diminishes all that has gone before.

Recommended to anyone that cares about intelligent thrillers, believable characters and a well crafted script.

Expect box office returns to be low and home viewing DVD/Bluray figures to be high.