Screenwriters: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Billy Ray
Starring: Russell Crowe (interview), Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels
Running time: 127 mins
The pen is mightier than the sword, which is fortunate for erstwhile gladiator Russell Crowe. He headlines this cracking conspiracy thriller as a journo with more inches on his waist than in print, but as he puffs and pants his way through Washington DC to expose corruption, it isn't just the jelly-like wobble of his belly that mesmerises. It's his ability be both alpha-male and underdog (shaggy hair and all); an unlikely balancing act for Brad Pitt who was originally set to star. And even if Crowe is heavy on his feet, director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) doesn't let up on the pace.
One of the sharper changes made to the original BBC series is setting the story against current upheaval in the media world. Cal McAffrey (Crowe) belongs to the old order of newspapermen being gradually displaced by the internet, and specifically resident blogger at The Washington Globe Della Frye (the fresh-faced Rachel McAdams). If Cal has let himself go, it's symptomatic of his being undermined and that adds real texture to a film that could've been just another slick Washington pot-boiler. It also heightens the tension between Cal and Della when they decide to pool resources on the story of a political aide (Maria Thayer) killed on the subway.
Cal develops a special interest in the case when he's approached for PR tips by US congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), an old college pal and the dead woman's boss. Collins is especially rattled because, he admits, they were having an affair. As well as being the springboard into a much deeper, darker investigation of backroom politics, the revelation is a counterpoint to a melodrama that unfolds between Cal and Collins's wife (a sultry Robin Wright Penn). Their frustrated romance is, perhaps, one complication too many in a densely layered plot, especially because the friendship between Cal and Collins feels insincere; assumed rather than illustrated.
Of course there are bigger issues at stake, which become apparent as Cal takes a leaf out of Woodward and Bernstein's book, chasing down witnesses (Jason Bateman) and cornering high-ranking politicians (Jeff Daniels) - albeit with less respect for professional codes of conduct. Macdonald even finds time for a shoot-out, but like that '70s classic All The President's Men, the real heart-stopping action happens behind closed doors where characters spitball theories or try to dodge implication (rather than bullets). The script, co-written by Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity), has a few holes in it, but like all good journalists, Macdonald works to the theory that 'How' is less important than 'Why' and keeps us wanting to know more.
As the Globe's editor, Helen Mirren is on typically hard-nosed form, representing all the legal and market concerns that get in the way of good old-fashioned journalism. It's a little disappointing that Della plays a less active part in the investigation as time goes on, eventually reduced to a sounding board for Cal's theories. But she also reflects what's most important to him: not 'The Truth' as much as the thrill of discovery. What makes Cal interesting is that he isn't completely noble. He's almost primal in his quest - not just having an intellectual need to know but a basic thirst for it - another reason why Crowe (with his Neanderthal charm) is such a perfect fit. As he arrives closer to finding out what happened to Collins's aide (and why), he is re-energised and the feeling is palpable. What he finally uncovers might be yesterday's chip paper, but his own story, cleverly told, is sure to run and run.
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