by Mel Valentin
While left-leaning political thrillers have underperformed commercially (witness the box office fates of "Stop-Loss," "In the Valley of Elah," "Lions for Lambs," and "The Kingdom," Hollywood continues to return to the genre, in the apparently vain hope that audiences will eventually come around. Directed by Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland," "Touching the Void," "One Day in September"), "State of Play," a topical Washington, D.C.-based political-corporate conspiracy thriller adapted from the British mini-series that aired on the BBC in 2003, may not break that unfortunate losing streak at the box office, but on its own merits (i.e., apart from its commercial prospects), itís engrossing, slickly produced entertainment. Beyond its entertainment bona fides, however, "State of Play" is a case study in the problems endemic to adapting (and Americanizing) a character-, story-, and subtext-rich six-part mini-series into a two-hour running time.State of Play opens immediately with two, seemingly unconnected deaths, the murder of a junkie-thief under an underpass (and the shooting of an innocent bystander) and the possible murder of a Congressional staffer, Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), after she falls in front of a D.C. subway train. Baker worked for Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), an ambitious Pennsylvania Congressman and former Gulf War veteran, specifically as lead researcher for upcoming hearings involving PointCorp, a private security firm (clearly modeled after Blackwater), the private security firm that, until recently, operated in Iraq. Collins hoped (and still hopes) to expose PointCorpís cover-up of atrocities committed by its contractors in the Middle East. After Collins breaks down in front of TV cameras after Bakerís death, rampant media speculation links them romantically, which immediately strains Collinsí already strained relationship with his wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn). Collins understandably suspects PointCorpís involvement in her death.
"Pulls one too many (political) punches."
Collins turns to Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), his one-time college roommate, long-time friend, and an investigative reporter for the Washington Globe, a struggling D.C. newspaper under new, profit-maximizing management, for help. McAffrey is old school in every sense: he drives a beat-up Saab, lives alone in an apartment stacked with books and periodicals, takes only secondary concern with his physical appearance, and works, grudgingly, on a woefully out-of-date computer. While McAffrey pushes and prods the managing editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), to give him enough leeway to investigate Bakerís death and, hopefully, exonerate Collins, Lynne also assigns Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a Washington Globe blogger, to help with the investigation. While Frye seems more interested in Collins and Bakerís personal lives, her newly minted mentor McAffrey pushes her to dig deeper into Bakerís background and any possible connections to PointCorp, who McAffrey also suspects of involvement in Bakerís death.
Compressing the six-hour mini-series directed by David Yates and written by Paul Abbott into a filmable two-hour adaptation fell to screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom) and Tony Gilroy (Duplicity, Michael Clayton, the Bourne franchise), and Billy Ray (Breach, Shattered Glass) and, unfortunately, it proved a difficult, maybe too difficult task. State of Play feels like a film thatís both too short and also too long. Where the mini-series focused primarily on the investigative process, with tangents and sub-plots branching out from the main storyline, State of Play often relies on coincidence and contrivance to push the main storyline forward toward the one-twist-too-many ending that inevitably undermines and compromises whatever message or theme Macdonald and his screenwriters intended.
Still, itís hard to argue against State of Playís topicality, both in the depiction of a newspaper struggling under harsh economic conditions and competition from online media, and the Blackwater problem thatís beset the involvement of the United States in the Middle East. Not surprisingly, State of Play also ties PointCorp to influence peddling and political corruption. Alas, like one too many Hollywood films, State of Play pulls too many political punches. Macdonald and his screenwriters refrain from mentioning either political party. In his critique of PointCorp, Collins sounds like a liberal Democrat, but heís never identified as such. Neither is the majority whip, George Fergus (Jeff Daniels). Iraq and our involvement there isnít explicitly mentioned, just the Middle East. Early on, PointCorp is accused of atrocities, but we never learn anything else (or even if they, in fact, occurred). PointCorpís financial interests apparently extend to domestic security contracts as well, but thatís just one more tantalizing idea left unresolved."State of Play" is much stronger in depicting the plight faced by newspapers all around the country and, at least in the semi-romantic McAffrey figure (disheveled appearance, conflict-of-interest aside), serves as a reminder of what we will lose if the kind of in-depth (and yes, costly) investigative reporting becomes another casualty of the economic recession. Regardless of which political party holds the reins of power in Washington, D.C., investigative reporting (or at least an idealized version of it) is necessary to keep the electorate informed, free of bias, and hold politicians, again regardless of political affiliation, accountable for their actions.
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originally posted: 04/17/09 05:28:38