Saturday, April 18, 2009

STATE OF PLAY

Review: State of Play
3.5 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

If you're reading this review in print instead of online, and still regularly get your news from pages that require flipping and folding instead of clicking and scrolling, odds are you're the ideal audience for “State of Play,” a movie that's built up as a brainy political thriller but is in fact a sentimental love letter to the endangered newspaper industry. Based on the BAFTA-winning 2003 BBC miniseries of the same name, this film version – directed by Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) and written by the Herculean screenwriting quintet of Matthew Michael Carnahan (“Lions for Lambs”), Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”), Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”), Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon”) and the show's author, Paul Abbott – brings stateside the drama of an investigative reporter looking into the smoke-and-mirrors death of a politician's mistress. In just over two hours, it attempts to pack in all of the series' six hours' worth of conspiratorial content, making it as layered as a beefy stack of Sunday editions. Not all the layers work: some that pique our interest are left unexplored, while others should have been nixed altogether. As with the BBC show, the one that gets top billing is the murder mystery, which has a lot of its own skins to shed. But the one that's the most lasting and effective is a knowing, affectionate nod to the dying world of print journalism.


Cal McAffrey works in that world – for the fictitious Washington Globe – and he, too, is a dying breed. An old-school journalist, he types up his copy on an ancient computer, has a cubicle that's littered with notes and clippings, drives a cheap 1990 Saab and still has the kind of wise-assed moxie that's made him well-known around D.C., for better or worse. He's portrayed as a scruffy, unkempt workaholic by Russell Crowe, the leader of quite a powerful pack. Along with its plot elements aplenty, “State of Play” features so many name actors, I sometimes forgot a couple of them were even in the movie. Ben Affleck plays Cal's old college pal, Stephen Collins, a strapping, square-jawed U.S. Congressman whose illicit girlfriend's death-by-subway car sparks that major story layer. Rachel McAdams is the Globe's new blood and Cal's eventual partner, Della Frye, a plucky Capitol Hill blogger who wants the murdered mistress story so bad, she can taste it on her gossip-flapping tongue. Both Cal and Della work for Cameron Lynne, the newspaper's cold-as-ice editor who's got new corporate owners to impress with BIG stories and is played by Helen Mirren, a frigid Brit who even has the silver, “Devil Wears Prada” coif to boot. There's also Robin Wright Penn as Stephen's loyal-yet-humiliated wife, Anne; Jeff Daniels as a snide fellow Congressman under suspicion; and funnyman Jason Bateman as a sleazy PR rep whose ties to the dead girl make him an unlikely key source.

“State of Play” weaves together more twists, secrets and disparate threads than you can count on two hands, and it's a testament to the compounded skills of the writing team that all of it actually makes sense. It takes you down a rabbit hole with multiple detours. The murder of the young woman is connected to two other slayings, and all three apparently lead back to a shady, frighteningly powerful war profiteering company that Stephen has a case against. Cal's investigation of the events is often compromised by his friendship with Stephen, which is on shaky ground to begin with given Cal's especially friendly past with Anne. Meanwhile, on the loose is a creepy, military-trained assassin straight out of “The Manchurian Candidate,” one of a handful of dubious characters in what primarily becomes a ripple-effect whodunit. All this amidst the Globe's very possible – and very palpable, at least to some of us – termination, which is constantly acknowledged in the script and makes “State of Play” perhaps the first major U.S. movie since the country's economic downturn to pointedly address the changing state of news media. With his notepad in hand and his life on the line, Cal represents the merits of those still willing to stick their necks out for a good, old-fashioned scoop. Della, who “cranks out copy every hour,” has those merits, too, but she writes infotainment and uploads it, denoting the blurred line between what's newsworthy and what's not. It is this, the story of these reporters' evolving environment, not the story they're working on, that's the heart of the movie, even if it's presented in a very familiar fashion.


One of the dilemmas of “State of Play” is that everyone, from the disgraced politician (the affair goes public) to his equally disgraced wife who's forced to make a face-saving statement, is not a person but a type of person. In the newsroom in particular, characters like Cameron are given inauthentic dialogue and props like a desk plaque that reads: “Never Trust an Editor,” thus making her about as real as J.J. Jameson from the “Spider-Man” movies. Mirren's a pistol, but she could play this kind of role in her sleep. Same goes for Crowe, who seems so laid back and unchallenged as Cal you'd think the Oscar-winner shot the movie for fun in his spare time. The only cast member who struggles with the material is Affleck, who so clearly wants to be taken seriously as an ACTOR but can't seem to get past what he learned in the Ben Affleck School of Overcompensation. Apart from its nearly newsprint-thin characters, the script barrels down too many roads, however clearly defined they may be. It picks up some serious speed in its third act as the puzzle comes together, but it's only moderately exciting, and it's halted by an excessive amount of revelations and climactic moments, needlessly burrowing even further down that rabbit hole.

What sticks when all is said and done has very little to do with the Congressman, the dead mistress or the villainous war profiteers (heck, even the delicately underplayed, quietly alluded to affair between Cal and Anne is more intriguing than all of that). It's the fondness for newspaper men and women that endures, capped off by an excellent final scene in which most of the Globe staff watches intently as an exhausted and emotionally drained Cal bangs out what's essentially the film's conclusion just hours before deadline. For those in the field, it is a poignant scene, though I imagine it will resonate with other viewers as well, thanks in large part to a touching moment between two characters. “State of Play” lacks the kind of compelling suspense that makes the best journalistic thrillers tick, but it has the same soul. Its lead story may not grab you, but there's something special beneath the headlines.

1 comment:

Jimmy Jarred said...

This movie looks interesting from this article. I didn't saw it and even never read anything earlier. But your review made me anxious to watch it.
State of Play Movie