Friendship and loyalty are tested when investigative crime reporter Cal McCaffrey (Oscar winner Russell Crowe) doggedly pursues the truth behind the mysterious death of the mistress/research assistant of old college buddy and current U. S. Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck).
Director Kevin McDonald ("The Last King of Scotland") and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan ("The Kingdom" and "Lions for Lambs"), Tony Gilroy ("Duplicity," "Michael Clayton" and the " Bourne" trilogy) and Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass") have done a masterful job of boiling down from six to two hours this conspiracy thriller based on the BBC mini-series of the same title.
This whodunit charade delights in pulling the wool over the eyes of the audience. An underlying battle shows the rivalry between print newspapers and online blogs.
Crowe is back on top of his game as clues are dropped like bread crumbs. All the loose strands eventually come together in a gotcha ending.
The intelligent storytelling glosses over the soap opera entanglements involving McCaffrey, Collins and Collins' wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn). The strong ensemble cast also includes: Oscar winner Helen Mirren as the ruthless and boisterous newspaper editor; Rachel McAdams as a rival online journalist who partners with Crowe's character; Jeff Daniels as a senior party leader on Capitol Hill; Viola Davis as a coroner doing an autopsy; and Jason Bateman as a sleazy publicist.
The suspense builds in this potboiler as McCaffrey puts his life in jeopardy. He becomes the prey instead of the hunter. The handsome and clean-cut Collins heads a defense committee that spends $30 billion to $40 billion on private security contractors. This puts him in the spotlight as a rising star on the political scene.
Inherent lies, buried secrets, a Watergate-like cover-up and a sex scandal with his top staff aide jeopardize Collins' reputation.
McCaffrey is in the midst of investigating the shooting of a black street-hustling junkie and a white pizza delivery man by a professional killer when Collins comes to crash at his messy apartment. McCaffrey helps put a positive spin on the unexpected death of the young woman as a result of falling off a subway platform into the path of an incoming train. The incident is initially classified as a suicide. The plot thickens when the black victim's cell phone contains the number of Collins' deceased mistress.
The movie's chief failing is the age discrepancy in casting 36-year-old Affleck, who is nine years younger than Crowe and seven years junior to Penn. It is a stretch to believe that Affleck was in college at the same time as Crowe and Penn. The scramble to hire Affleck as a replacement for Edward Norton can be traced to the impossibility of script revisions because of the writers' strike and delays to the start of shooting. These unforeseen obstacles also caused Brad Pitt to drop out of the project with the lead role falling in the lap of Crowe.
The location shots in and around Washington, D.C., enhance the danger aspects that lurk in the shadows and around every dark corner. The ensemble acting is the best so far this year. Mirren's British roots are evident in her foul-mouthed tirades. The strongest chemistry on screen occurs between Crowe and his female co-stars Penn and McAdams. The most humorous moment occurs when Crowe presents McAdams with a necklace of ballpoint pens since she relies on a computer keyboard rather than old-fashioned writing instruments.
The contemporary clash between government and corporate institutions on one side and taxpayers and individuals serving in the military on the other is portrayed in an authentic and realistic manner. This thought-provoking movie will leave audiences with a wealth of issues to ponder about our future.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"