A film review by Craig J. Koban
STATE AND PLAY
2009, PG, 118 mins.
2009, PG, 118 mins.
Cal McAffrey: Russell
Crowe / Stephen
Della Frye: Rachel
Cameron Lynne: Helen
Anne Collins: Robin
Wright Penn /
Dominic Foy: Jason Bateman /
Rep. Fergus: Jeff Daniels
|Kevin Macdonald’s STATE OF
PLAY is an uncommonly intelligent, thought provoking, topical, and
intensely thrilling political/journalism thriller that certainly would
have been made 30 years ago by directors named Pollack or Pakula.
What’s so refreshingly invigorating about the film is that it not
only tells an alarming, enthralling, and suspense filled whodunit mystery,
but it also manages to make some pointed comments about the current state
of investigative print journalism and the relevance of hard copy
newspapers in an ever increasing digital, Internet dominated age.
It’s somewhat startling to
see story after story in the media as of late where newspapers from
various US cities are dying a very quick, analogue death, and there are
individual moments in STATE OF PLAY that capture this increasing
disillusionment about this issue with such a melancholic precision.
Beyond that, the film does a
bravura job of encapsulating the essence of some of the best
paranoia-infused thrillers of the 1970’s, and comparisons of it to some
of that decade’s best political potboilers is meant as a sincere
Much like TRAFFIC, STATE OF PLAY is based on a TV mini-series of a considerably longer length. It was originally a six-hour, six part BBC mini-series that aired between May and June of 2003. The series took place in London and starred the likes of John Simm, Kelly Macdonald, David Morrissey, and Bill Nighy. Kevin Macdonald has always been a long-time admirer of the series, but apparently felt very intimidated by the prospect of appropriating it to a truncated feature length film (clearly, the prospect of trimming down a six hour series down to a more Hollywood friendly two-plus hours seems like a daunting task, to be sure).
Fortunately, the film version
manages to capture many of the same themes and narrative essence of its
much longer and denser predecessor: it manages to fluently blend a
fictional tale with relevant subjects of journalism and politics and how
those two entities coalesce together (sometimes for the better, sometimes
for the worse). Some of its
themes are hardly groundbreaking or revelatory (politicians can be
backstabbing, it’s hard for a journalist to completely trust their
sources, and it’s hard for readers to trust everything that they read…hardly
a first for the movies), but the fascinating undercurrent to the film
is how it dives into how the journalism profession is both assisted and
hurt by a relationship to politics, not to mention how big business
interests have become a domineering presence in the manner that newspapers
are bring run. Perhaps even
more unsettling is how STATE OF PLAY rightfully and wisely dissects how
people often slavishly turn to the blogosphere for “trusted”, late
breaking news stories instead of consulting good, old fashioned newspapers
headed up by seasoned, scrupulous, and sternly determined writers that
seek the truth first and web site hits second.
Despite this film’s obvious
slimming down of its sources’ material, STATE OF PLAY nevertheless feels
like a densely layered, mature, and meticulously observed thriller.
Set in Washington (instead of London, as was the case in the BBC
incarnation) the film introduces us toe Congressmen Stephen Collins (Ben
Affleck, recently developing a strong reputation for decent, low key
supporting performances) who is a representative from Pennsylvania’s 7th
district. He is also the Chairman for a committee that is reviewing
whether or not a corporation, Pointcorp, should be used to outsource
homeland security. Just as
Collins is about to have his way with Pointcorp CEO on the witness stand,
he is given the horrific news that one of the aids in his office has
tragically died as the result of an apparent suicide.
What makes the situation even more dire is the fact Collins'
revelation that he had a romantic relationship with the young woman, which
acts as an obvious black mark on his reputation as a justice-seeking
political crusader. This
story also has calamitous effects on his relationship with his wife, Anne
(the always dependable and quietly strong Robin Wright Penn).
Collins does have a buddy to
confine in during this difficult time in the form of a Washington Globe
reporter named Cal McAffrey (a pudgy, scruffy, and terrifically sly
Russell Crowe), who was a roommate of his when they were both in college.
McAffrey is also investigating a seemingly unrelated murder at the
time of Collions’ aids’ death, but it slowly becomes apparent that the
deaths may be related to one another (this is driven home when Collins
reveals to his friend that his old flame’s death was most certainly not
a suicide as it has been widely reported).
McAffrey, a battle-hardened and gleefully old school newsman, is
backed by his equally aggressive and strong-willed editor Cameron Lynne
(Helen Mirren, in deliciously fine, scenery chewing form here), who is
really feeling the burden of the paper’s new corporate owners that want
to cut costs down on the Globe and print more scandalous news.
She pairs McAffrey up with a young, plucky, and somewhat
wet-behind-the-ears blogger named Della Frye (Rachel McAdams, combining
beauty, poise, and confidence in equal dosages here), not because she is
McAffrey’s match as a crack investigative journalist, but more because,
as Lynne once states, "She's young, she’s cheap, and she churns out
copy several times a day!” McAffrey
begrudgingly takes the young Della on as his sidekick, of sorts, all while
imparting some wisdom upon her as to how so-called news making dinosaurs
like him manage to get the job done right without engaging in hurried,
unsubstantiated and self-aggrandizing gossip copy for her daily blog site.
Right from the get go, STATE
OF PLAY is off and running and rarely, if ever, looks back to take a
breath. By making the
“hero” of the film a journalist comparisons to classic films like ALL
THE PRESIDENT’S MEN seem logical, and more than rightfully warranted.
The film’s story has considerable fun dealing with many of the
dilemmas of McAffrey has with uncover the mystery of that aid’s death
(was it really suicide, or was it murder, did it have anything to do with
the corporate entities that Stephen is investigating?).
The underlining story adds more moral baggage to McAffrey as it
slowly and methodically progresses: How
far will he go to protect Collins in order to uncover the truth?
And, how much will his previous indiscretions with Collins’ wife
factor in his protection of friends?
The more McAffrey and Frye dig the more it becomes clear that that
a massive governmental conspiracy of the highest order is at play here,
largely perpetrated by Pointcorp itself and its top brass.
Yet, does the truth simply end with discovering Pointcorp’s
willingness to get rid of Collins altogether or is there other darker and
more sinister secrets beyond this that need to come to the forefront?
There are times when STATE OF
PLAY is feverously twisty with its plot – many times I can honestly
claim to not knowing precisely where the story was heading, and when the
narrative arrives at the obligatory “twists”, they are, for the most
part, genuinely surprising. If the film has a weakness then it would be definitely in its
final 15 or 20 minutes, which seems to rush the proceedings to a fairly
hasty resolution, which is a shame considering how exemplary crafted and
painstakingly constructed the overall story is to that point.
The film thankfully manages to jolt viewers with relative ease,
especially during it’s sensational opening prologue (which starts the
film with a theatre chair clasping bit of adrenaline-induced intensity and
pathos) and especially during one key sequence involving McAffrey in an
underground apartment garage being hunted by a man that seems to have been
the prime suspect in the killings. The
way Macdonald crafts suspense here with simple and evocative camera moves
and well-timed silence would have made Hitchcock proud. This scene
should be required viewing for all novice - and some veteran
- directors out there that believe that the best way to drum up thrills
and excitement is with epilepsy-inducing camera work alongside hyperactive
STATE OF PLAY is also a performance
nirvana film, and its ensemble cast is uniformly superb throughout.
Unsurprisingly, Russell Crowe is so naturally confident and at ease
with his character and shows how remarkable he is at doing subtle things
to make his reporter feel credible: he’s not a hunky, chiseled, and
blemish free leading man here (the film’s original star, Brad Pitt, most
certainly would have come off as just that), but rather Crowe makes his
character an unkempt, tubby, and wizened figure, which allows for our
rotting interest in him to be that much more pervasive.
Considering the roles in the past that have showed off Crowe’s
rugged physicality and male bravado (like GLADIATOR and CINDERELLA
MAN), it's kind of remarkable what a below-the-radar chameleon he
is at playing more discrete parts that allow for deeper immersion on his
part (as was also the case in THE INSIDER and last year’s underrated BODY
His supporting cast is also
rock solid, including Rachel McAdams, always an infectious and radiant
screen presence, and here she manages to assuredly portray Della’s
naiveté and later emergence into a cunning and crafty newswoman without
succumbing to mindless and routine clichés.
Helen Mirren as a newspaper editor…that alone is enough to
demonstrate how perfectly tailored she is for this role (after seeing her
play dignified and refined parts, like in her Oscar winning title part in THE
QUEEN, it’s a juicy and delectably entertaining hoot to see her
sink her teeth into her cagey, acidic tongued, and wonderfully vulgar
editor). Affleck, an actor
who has show time and time again how much better he is than the tabloid
media tries to tell us (like in smaller, under cranked roles in films like
HOLLYWOODLAND, CHANGING LANES)
nicely underscores his Congressmen’s disillusionment while delicately
hinting at even more deeply embedding emotional wounds.
Jeff Daniels has a very small, but memorable, cameo as a shadowy
politician with deeply duplicitous motives.
Finally, the great Jason Bateman appears late in the game in a
movie stealing, Oscar-nomination worthy performance as sinfully rich,
incorrigibly devious, and plain old scuzzy PR man that just may be the key
to blowing the lid on Pointcorp once and for all.
Bateman’s dry and effortlessly sardonic wit he brings to this
two-faced, drug popping and beer guzzling loser brings the film to an
absolute crescendo near its final third, and it is certainly no
easy task to rob a scene right from under Russell Crowe’s feet.
STATE OF PLAY is the kind of film that has such a remarkably high breed of overall talent on board: The director, Kevin Macdonald, made the brilliant LAST KING OF SCOTLAND; the cast includes multiple Oscar winners and nominees, and the writing credits is a relative dream team of some of the industry’s finest, from Tony Gilroy (who penned everything from the Jason Bourne Trilogy to MICHAEL CLAYTON to this year’s very agreeable DUPLICITY) to Matthew Michael Carnahan (who penned the horrible overlooked THE KINGDOM) and Billy Ray (who recently wrote and directed the supremely undervalued BREACH and also made one of the better journalistic feature films in SHATTERED GLASS). With such a lauded and appreciated group of actors and filmmakers, it’s certainly very delightful to see a film that manages to do all of their names credit. As an adaptation of much revered mini-series, this feature length STATE OF PLAY emerges as a sleek, polished, and unrepentantly intelligent and compelling thriller. Yet, perhaps what’s most disconcerting about the entire film is the notion that, with our ever-expanding blogosphere and information sharing that involves bit-sized news bits in Twitter form, the newspaper just may be on its last legs.
That would be a small tragedy,