State of Play – Review

A focus on journalism in a day where newspapers are dying, hmmm.


Director: Kevin Macdonald
Notable Cast: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Jason Bateman, Helen Mirren

When I first heard that this film, State of Play, was being made, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton were set to star. The duo that made Fight Club into a cult hit reuniting for a movie – somebody pinch me. No pinch came and the stars didn’t stay. That’s the business. In their places are two actors with varying degrees of success. Russell Crowe replaces Pitt as Cal McAffrey, the old relic newshound who finds himself in an ethical quandary, pitting his duties as a journalist against his friendship with Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck, replacing Norton), a married congressman involved in a sex scandal.

Notice how I didn’t even bother to elucidate in the first paragraph that Play is adapted from a British mini-series from 2003. Is it relative? Maybe. Have I seen it? No. I do know this much, though. A six-episode series with multiple story arcs has been trimmed to a more manageable two-hour investigative thriller set in Washington, D.C. (replacing the London setting). Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) quickly finger-snaps his way through the plot, equipped with eyebrow-raising twists. But even with this sense of urgency we still learn enough about the characters to keep us interested.

Russell Crowe may not set the box office on fire all the time, but you ask any casting agency and he’s one of the heavy hitters a studio looks for in getting a project off the ground. He proves to be a worthy fill-in for the exiting Pitt. He has a plum role, showing off his American accent by way of Pennsylvania. As the hard-news reporter for the Washington Globe – think the Post by another name – he pulls up to a murder scene involving a purse-snatcher – two bullets to the head; clear, professional hit. There was witness who was shot as well, landing in a coma. The next day, the lead researcher for a Congressional inquiry into defense contractors throws herself in front of a subway, causing her boss, Congressman Collins, to choke up with cameras rolling and bulbs flashing.

The media, little piranhas that devour a story until there’s nothing left, look to attack the congressman’s character. And outside of the illicit affair, there are other questions. Was her death indeed a suicide? Is it somehow linked to Cal’s homicide story? Is this just a smokescreen put on by those defense contractors with their well-lined checkbooks – could they be involved?

The answers to all these questions (and a few more) are found in a story that is expertly crafted by three distinct screenwriters (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Billy Ray). Each has found success in solo writing efforts, and even in the director’s chair. Together the three of them condense a wealth of material into a film that plays stronger than the police procedurals we are used to seeing on television each week. The protagonist as an investigative reporter allows us access into a world that’s plunged of late. Ramped into production way before an economic crisis that has terminated a number of newspaper outfits, the screenplay nonetheless is a testament to the dwindling state of the newspaper business. All you have to do is look at Cal’s partner in this investigation: Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), star blogger for the Globe. Cal may be backed by a saucy editor (Helen Mirren), but even her footing isn’t so sure. Considerations like fact-checking and the sewing of details are a minor concern. Money talks.

State of Play has a strong plot that leads the viewer to unravel the mystery web alongside the characters of McCaffery and Frye, but it’s not too highbrow. The final twist I could have done without, even though it registered a few gasps from the audience screening. It seemed plucked from a mystery novel.

Still I can’t overlook at the talent involved in such a production. Crowe is strong and proves that with his raggedy mane he should have played Dr. Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code. Helen Mirren is great in her limited work. The discourse she has with Crowe is priceless. And I can’t overlook Jason Bateman in his scene-stealing role as the slimy public relations rep with the Pat Riley haircut. Give this guy more work, please.

In a day where smart thrillers are a rarity, at least this one tries to be smarter than most.


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