State of Play

April, 2009, Thriller

Directed by:Kevin Macdonald

Starring:Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, and Jeff Daniels

This workman like adaptation of a critically acclaimed British television production has lost a good bit in crossing the Atlantic, but still serves as a diverting exercise in political and journalistic skullduggery. Scottish-born director Kevin Macdonald, whose eclectic track record includes such films as The King of Scotland and Touching The Void condensed a 6 hour mini-series by two-thirds here; in doing so, he surrenders an intriguing examination of the compelling forces which govern the British press which was contained in the original. What remains can be categorized as a conventional thriller, but one not without some genuine plot surprises and lots of solid dialogue probably due to co-screenwriter Tony Gilroy, (Duplicity, Michael Clayton, The Bourne Trilogy). The results, if not especially memorable, are certainly entertaining.

Russell Crowe, wearing a couple of stone in surplus weight around his middle and sporting enough hair to qualify him as lead singer in a heavy metal band, plays Cal McCaffrey, veteran reporter for a Washington D.C. newspaper struggling to survive the onslaught of television and internet competition. When he sets out to cover the fatal shooting of a young street punk, Cal uncovers a highly-sensitive national security conspiracy when he unearths a message from his homicide victim on the cell phone of an apparent suicide who happens to be a young female researcher for Congressman Steve Collins (Ben Affleck) Cal’s best friend since they roomed together in college. What’s the connection between this pair of fatalities? 

Pressured by his bitchy publisher Cameron Lynne, (yet another delicious performance by Helen Mirren) to uncover what appears to be a juicy scandal and forced to compete for parts of the story with Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) one of the newspapers young society bloggers, Cal develops crucial information which he and his boss decide to withhold from the police, justifying their decision in the name of journalistic freedom. But when this evidence connects yet another homicide to Cal’s investigation, Della challenges the integrity of the newspaper’s journalistic ethics. Alas, hunger for a big scoop trumps such moral scruples and the reporters begin to connect the dots in what appears to be an increasingly disturbing conspiracy involving The Department of Homeland Security and a coven of military contractors…

These storyline machinations are further complicated by sexual hanky-panky involving Collins, the dead researcher, Cal and the congressman’s beautiful blond wife Anne (a stunning Robin Wright Penn) which add complexity to the proceeds without enhancing the movie’s point of view or emotional impact. As Collins slides into meltdown in the face of these combined political and marital peccadilloes, State of Play becomes a predictable melodrama, until it’s rescued by a clever plot twist which retrieves some of the movie’s momentum.

As Cal, Crowe delivers yet another journeyman performance, thoroughly suited to this commercial material. With shirttails flapping and  armed with only pad and pen, Crowe probes the secrets of society’s better dressed and socially prominent with a quiet, mocking self-assurance. Equipoise has become Crowe’s stock in trade, whether it be as ship’s captain, (Master & Commander) Western outlaw, (3:10 to Yuma) or Roman general (Gladiator).  He infuses Cal with a quiet dignity that’s thoroughly masculine yet commendably sensitive. The role isn’t especially demanding, but Crowe interprets it wonderfully, jousting heatedly with Lynne, flirting delicately with Anne and insistently pressuring her wayward husband to behave with the sense of honor Cal believes him to possess.

While Crowe and Mirren shine in their roles, and Penn glows with enigmatic beauty in hers, the casting of Affleck and McAdams drains much of the credibility and energy from the finished product. Affleck just doesn’t have the acting chops to credibly portray a decorated war-hero turned-crusading politician; how does this blandly handsome but consistently dull tabloid star continue to get choice roles? His character requires a blend of charisma, moral rectitude and venality all rolled into one, but when dialogue comes out of Affleck’s mouth it sounds phony and contrived rather than grounded and appropriate. The fault doesn’t lie in Affleck’s lines, but in his inability to imbue them with anything approaching believability. 

McAdams has displayed pleasing comedic talents in earlier roles, (The Family Stone, Wedding Crashers) but assigning her the role of an ambitious young career women not above lying to get what she wants puts her out of her depth; she winds up as window dressing in a part that should have provided Crowe with a journalistic partner worthy of his contributions to the movie; McAdams inability to rise to the occasion robs State of Play of the dramatic balance which could have made it a better film. 

Veteran cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, (Babel, Brokeback Mountain, 21 Grams) makes his Washington D.C. settings appear appropriately ominous and Macdonald’s choice of Cheryl Carasik as set decorator produces a wonderfully detailed recreation of life in the rabbit’s warren of any big city newspaper. Despite these authentic touches (be sure to stay through the credits and see how words flow from a reporter’s word processor to a newsstand on the street) and a cleverly mounted investigation in the first2/3rds of the movie, State of Play winds up being less exciting and interesting that it might have been.

The Verdict? Slickly entertaining but lacking the bite and substance of its source.


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