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State of Play
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Yo, Affleck. . .You Were The Bomb In Closed-Door Session!"
4 stars

Over the years, I have seen many films in which crusading newspaper reporters have risked their lives and reputations in the pursuit of a complex story that could reach to the highest corridors of power if unraveled. However, “State of Play” is the first one that I can recall in which the newspaper that the reporters worked for seemed to be in more imminent danger than the reporters themselves. Oh sure, those reporters go through all the requisite risks--they are shot at, stalked in darkened garages and threatened by powerful types who threaten to destroy them personally and professionally if they print one word of their scurrilous accusations against some heretofore beloved person or institution--but look at the traumas that befall the fourth estate here. Veteran reporters who are being phased out in exchange for bloggers who will provide twice the copy of a traditional scribe for only a fraction of the cost and with only a fraction of the actual reporting. Editors who are more concerned with beating the competition with the quickest headlines than in pursuing the full story. New owners who are more interested in making a profit than in offering quality journalism and who are convinced that the best way to go about that is to change the masthead, shrink the newsroom and do unspeakable things to poor “Ziggy” in order to reduce the size of the comics page. This is the kind of film where someone says “Stop the presses!” and the immediate concern is less for the story at hand and more for how much money such an act is costing and which department will suffer as a result.

The film opens with a pair of seemingly unrelated and unmotivated deaths. In the first, a young punk is chased through the dark streets of Washington D.C. until he is gunned down by a mysterious figure who also gravely wounds an innocent bystander who just happened to be passing by on a bicycle. The next morning, pretty redhead Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) is killed when she falls into the path of an oncoming subway train. Although there is not much interest in the story involving the two shooting victims, the powers-that-be at the venerable “Washington Globe” give to veteran reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and he doggedly pursues it via the old-fashioned manner of actually leaving his desk to track down leads and cultivate sources. The Sonia Baker case, on the other hand, quickly gains heat when it is discovered that she was an aide to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), a rising star on the political scene, and it becomes even hotter when it is quickly revealed that the two were having an affair. Assuming that this is just another Capitol Hill sex scandal, the story is assigned to blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) and she latches on to the instant assumption that Sonia committed suicide. This particular approach annoys Cal on two levels--because she appears to be leaping to conclusions without doing any real reporting and because Stephen just happens to be an old friend of his, at least until Cal slept with his wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn). Despite the rift between the two, Stephen arrives on Cal’s doorstep seeking help and Cal offers up suggestions on devising plausible alternate theories about what might have happened to Sonia in order to deflect Stephen’s involvement in the case.. Without going into too much detail, it turns out that the two cases are linked and Cal and Della join forces to investigate the story and discover an ever-expanding web of surprise revelations that eventually grows to include a drugged-out P.R. guy (Jason Bateman), a smarmy and pious congressman (Jeff Daniels) and a massive Halliburton-like corporation whose bid to win billions of dollars in government contracts is being investigated by a committee led by Stephen--or it was, until the heat from his personal life forces him to take a lesser role in the proceedings.

“State of Play” is based on an acclaimed six-hour miniseries made for British television in 2003 that featured the likes of James McAvoy, Bill Nighy and Kelly MacDonald. Therefore, the central challenge for screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray (and probably others as well) in adapting it to the big screen was to figure out a way to telescope six hours of narrative into 127 minutes without losing the essence of the story or making viewers feel as though roughly two-thirds of the original material has been set aside. The problem here is that even if you haven’t actually seen the original version (as I haven’t), it is still pretty obvious right from the start that there is a lot of stuff missing here and as a result, there are too many loose ends floating around. Seemingly important characters like Stephen’s congressional mentor, Cal and Della’s editor (Helen Mirren) and the cop assigned to investigate the killings (Harry Lennix) are introduced with great fanfare and then more or less ignored for most of the rest of the proceedings--although Mirren does get off a few amusingly prickly line readings but is otherwise wasted in a part that has her doing little more than fretting about what mischief Cal has gotten himself into this time around. Similarly, the material involving the past history between Cal and Anne is so awkwardly handled that as it unfolds, you’ll be dumbfounded as to why they decided to retain something that neither the screenplay nor the actors nor director Kevin MacDonald seem to have any particular appetite for and when it turns out that this seemingly pointless and meandering subplot actually is a vital part of the story after all, you’ll be even more dumbfounded. The finale is also a bit of a disappointment as well in the sense that there are too many twists, turns and surprise developments and not enough screen time for any of them to play out long enough to have any real impact. My guess is that most of these elements play a lot better in the original six-hour version than they do in the vestigial traces on display here--by removing them, the filmmakers were clearly hoping to streamline a sprawling storyline but they unfortunately took things too far and wound up with a plot that isn’t nearly as dense or complex as it seems to think that it is.

And yet, while “State of Play” doesn’t completely work as a whole, there are plenty of individual elements that do come off well enough to warrant at least a mild recommendation. If you can ignore the fact that Robin Wright Penn has been given nothing of substance and that there is never a single moment when you believe that the people played by Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck could exist in the same universe, let alone be longtime friends and college roommates, the actors are fairly strong all around--Crowe gives one of his more focused performances of late, McAdams does a very good job of holding her own in her scenes with him Affleck is surprisingly convincing as the slick politico trying to get out of a trap of his own making and people like Mirren, Daniels and Bateman sparkle during their brief bits. MacDonald, in his first film since “The Last King of Scotland,” does an effective job of telling the story in a clean and classical cinematic style that, unlike so many thrillers today, doesn’t resort to utilizing a hyperkinetic editing style a la the Jason Bourne films in an effort to keep audiences interested. (That said, it may be a little too clean and classical for those viewers who prefer their complex conspiracy-oriented thrillers to be, you know, complex.) Best of all, it stands as what may be one of the last examples of that once time-honored screen subgenre, the newspaper film. Although this is as contemporary of a film as one could possibly hope for, it clearly has its roots in the classic 1930’s featuring hot-shot reporters (so much so that some film buffs may find themselves wishing that Warner Brothers, who pretty much owned the genre back in the day had produced it instead of Universal just for the sake of tradition) as well as such modern examples as “All the President’s Men” and “Zodiac,” and in many ways, it plays both as a cheerful celebration of the power of the press and a memorial to those good old days as they begin to slip away for good. (In an especially evocative moment, the end credits of the film gives us a glimpse at the actual mechanical process that goes into printing a newspaper--a nice shout-out to the tricks of the trade of old media from a film showing the myriad ways in which they are being replaced by the new.)

“State of Play” is the third film in as many months offering us the sight of glamorous movie stars moving through convoluted conspiracy plotlines and on the grand scale of such things, it is more intriguing than “The International” (though it lacks a single killer scene on the level of that film’s masterful shootout at the Guggenheim) but less intriguing than “Duplicity” (which, despite its lighter and decidedly more comedic tone, had more interesting things to say about corruption, greed and corporate politics than this film does about its central subjects and which, ironically, was written and directed by co-writer Gilroy). Others may be reminded of a mid-level Sydney Pollack film like “Absence of Malice” or “The Firm” in which the slick style and good performances counterbalance the other deficiencies. However, I think the best and most apt thing to compare the experience of watching “State of Play” to is the experience of reading a good newspaper on a slow news day--you can admire the craft and professionalism that went into its production but when you get to the end of it, you just toss it into the recycling bin and never give it a second thought.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17546&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/17/09 00:00:00
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User Comments

3/24/18 morris campbell entertaining but nothing special 3 stars
12/27/12 fartvenugen Most incompetent assassin in history of cinema 1 stars
10/11/09 FrankNFurter Retarded plot twist u could see coming a mile away. "Current events" does not = "deep." 2 stars
10/03/09 Jack Marks Crusty the clown plays news reporter, oi 2 stars
9/21/09 cmay I still don't get it. Was Affleck part of pointco? 4 stars
9/07/09 action movie fan dull film no thrills 2 stars
9/01/09 Jeff Wilder Great acting even if the script is uneven in spots. 4 stars
7/25/09 Bryan The actors help keep things moving, but it becomes fairly muddled as it goes along. 3 stars
4/26/09 Jack Sommersby Frustratingly uninvolving and depleted of interesting characterizations. 2 stars
4/25/09 BostonCharlie I liked Crowe's scruffy reporter. Even liked Affleck. Guess I'll never be a reviewer. 4 stars
4/17/09 Nick Uuum...oh, I'm sorry. I was sleeping. Is this crap over yet?? 2 stars
4/17/09 Steve Exceptionally good thriller with lots of twist that keep you engaged throughout this film 4 stars
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  17-Apr-2009 (PG-13)
  DVD: 01-Sep-2009


  DVD: 01-Sep-2009

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