State of Play
Director : Kevin Macdonald
Screenplay : Matthew Michael Carnahan and Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray (based on the television series created by Paul Abbott)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Russell Crowe (Cal McAffrey), Ben Affleck (Stephen Collins), Rachel McAdams (Della Frye), Helen Mirren (Cameron Lynne), Robin Wright Penn (Anne Collins), Jason Bateman (Dominic Foy), Jeff Daniels (Rep. George Fergus), Michael Berresse (Robert Bingham), Harry Lennix (Det. Donald Bell), Josh Mostel (Pete), Michael Weston (Hank), Barry Shabaka Henley (Gene Stavitz), Viola Davis (Dr. Judith Franklin)
The tough, hard-nosed journalist--not a simplistic crusading hero, but rather a workaday professional who just wants to the know “the truth”--has long been a staple of Hollywood cinema, and Russell Crowe contributes smoothly to the lineage in the political thriller State of Play. Sporting longish hair and a beard, he plays Cal Affrey, who is summarized in the opening sequence as we see him driving to a crime scene in his ancient Saab, eating a lunch of Cheetos and tossing the wrapper into his junky backseat. This is a guy who doesn’t have time to clean up his car, or shave, or worry about fashion. He’s after the truth, not because he wants to save the world, but because it’s his professional obligation.
However, there is an additionally intriguing dynamic to Cal’s character, and one that is particularly crucial to the here and now: He is a dying breed. State of Play is a thriller about conspiracy, murder, and politics, but it is also about the current state of journalism, in which old journos like Cal who take several days to write a story, refuse to rely on sensationalism and hearsay, and think that real stories should leave ink on your fingers, are slowly being pushed aside in a world of 24-hour cable news, Twitter, and Internet blogs that post everything (or some version of it) the moment it happens. State of Play is an old-fashioned kind of thriller--solid, patient, and even thoughtful--so it doesn’t come as much surprise that it finds heroics in Cal’s dogged brand of journalism, which gets the facts right at the expense of speed and flash, much to the chagrin of his paper’s executive editor (Helen Mirren), who is feeling the constant pressure from the corporate owners to produce, produce, produce.
Cal’s old dog is set against and eventually teams with the new kid on the block, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a hungry newcomer who writes a political blog for the fictional Washington, D.C., newspaper (obviously modeled on the Washington Post) at which Cal has toiled for the past 15 years. Their paths cross when two stories they are working on--he’s covering a double murder and she’s covering the erupting scandal involving a Congressman (Ben Affleck) who has been having an affair with an aide who was either murdered or committed suicide--turn out to be interrelated. The stories are further complicated by the fact that Cal and the Congressman, a rising hotshot named Stephen Collins who is crusading against military outsourcing, was his college roommate. And, if that weren’t enough of a complication, Cal also has a history with Collins’s betrayed wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn). There is conspiracy afoot and Cal wants to dig it out, but his motives are always in question: Is he trying to help his old buddy or is he trying to get the story? Can he do both with integrity, or will one motivation ultimately corrupt the other?
Based on the 2003 British mini-series of the same title, State of Play was adapted by three of the most interesting screenwriters currently working the Hollywood scene: Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), each of whom draws on the thematic interests that fueled the best of their previous films (Iraq-war-era government, corporate abuse of power, and journalistic ethics, respectively). Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) avoids the stylistic pitfalls that too many directors feel such genre films must have lest they be narratively engaging and relies instead on the inherent intrigue of the material. Of course, he’s also working with an impressive cast, which is rounded out by Jason Bateman as a comically flashy PR agent with crucial information and Jeff Daniels as the kind of polished but deeply corrupt politician that makes your stomach turn. State of Play revels in such disparities, fueling its mystery with our constant sense of unease about the intersections between the public and the private and those who benefit from escalating war. It doesn’t have anything particularly profound to say, but its old-fashioned virtues make its depictions of dark dealings along the Potomac feel all too possible.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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