State of Play
In State of Play, when its hero Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) talks about the decline of newspapers for the Internet and blogs, he not only sounds like he means it, he looks like he does. Cal is a dying breed - A scruffy investigative journalist who lives off a diet of junk food and whisky, has the physical appearance of an unmade bed, and generally lives for the story he's currently working on. When his chief editor (Helen Mirren) assigns him to work alongside a young Internet blogger named Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), there's bound to be some friction.
Surprisingly, their relationship remains entirely professional during the course of State of Play. The screenplay does not see the need for an unnecessary romantic subplot, which is a good thing, since there's already enough plot in the movie as is. There's also a lot of twists and turns, but never so many that we become frustrated or feel like we're being jerked around. Right off the bat, the movie grabs our attention as we witness a double murder by a shadowy figure in the film's opening scene, followed by a young woman supposedly killing herself by jumping into the path of an oncoming subway train. The woman was working for a Washington Senator named Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), an old college friend of Cal's, whom he turns to when the press start swarming his house. He's forced to confess that he was having an affair with the young woman, which not only puts his political career in question, but obviously also that with his wife (Robin Wright Penn). Is it all some part of corporate conspiracy out to discredit Collins and allow a shady corporation to do whatever it wants without anything standing in the way?
Naturally, things are not what they seem. State of Play holds our attention with a complex web of revelations to the point that we want to know where it's all leading to as much as the characters of Cal and Della do. The film itself is an adaptation of a 5 hour British TV mini-series, and it must have been a taxing chore for screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs), Tony Gilroy (Duplicity), and Billy Ray (Breach) to squeeze all of the material from the original into a film that runs just a little over two hours. They've managed to do just that, with an engrossing plotline that never once slows down or stalls. Yes, some of the characters and their relationships suffer because of this (Cal has had a relationship with Stephen's wife, which is not touched on as much as it probably should have been.), but the movie is so tightly edited, paced, and plotted that it feels like you're watching a constant juggling act as the movie tries to keep all of its plot threads and characters up in the air.
I was also intrigued with how the movie becomes topical, working the decline of print newspapers into the plot. Cal finds himself in the race against the clock to get to the bottom of the story, because his editor is demanding an article. In this electronic information age, misinformation is unfortunately rampant, and Cal is of the firm belief that the facts come first. His editor is not unsympathetic, but at the same time, she needs those sales if she wants the paper to stay alive. And in order to get those sales, she has to have an article as quick as possible. As someone who still believes highly in the value of print, I was intrigued with how this was handled, with both Cal and Della representing both sides of the war in gathering information. It also adds another layer of tension, not that the story needed it. There are plenty of expertly crafted suspense/action sequences, such as when Cal finds himself on the run from a gunman in an abandoned parking garage, or when Della becomes a witness to an assassination attempt at a local hospital. Director Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland) has a real eye for suspense scenes.
Since the plot is constantly in motion, we never get very close to the characters, but the fine cast still manage to find ways to deliver with their performances. Russell Crowe brings a sort of mischief to his portrayal, like he's weary of the world and the business he's in, but he's still able to hold onto the spark that got him into reporting in the first place. He has an easy chemistry with both Rachel McAdams and especially Helen Mirren, who completely nails the role of the understanding yet hard-nosed editor, and who I wish could have had more screen time. As for Ben Affleck, I had forgotten how good of an actor he can be with the right role. He's very vulnerable here, and brings out the various shades of his complex character quite well. The backlash he took a few years ago for his personal overexposure and his questionable film choices has resulted in a very strong reboot for his career, and I hope this continues.
State of Play unravels a little at the end, and some of the clues fall into place a little too easily, but this is still an intelligent and highly enjoyable thriller. A lot of its problems most likely stems from the fact that the filmmakers were working with such a short frame of time. The movie constantly seems to be close to obtaining greatness, but never quite reaches it. At least the impact the film has isn't lessened by this fact. It's an ideal alternative for parents as they drop their kids off to see Hannah Montana or 17 Again.
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