A film review by Craig J. Koban


2009, PG, 118 mins.

Cal McAffrey: Russell Crowe / Stephen Collins: Ben Affleck / Della Frye: Rachel McAdams / Cameron Lynne: Helen Mirren / Anne Collins: Robin Wright Penn / Dominic Foy: Jason Bateman / Rep. Fergus: Jeff Daniels

Directed by Kevin Macdonald / Screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, based on the BBC series created by Paul Abbott

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 compliment. 

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 editing.

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 OF LIES). 

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, indeed. 

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