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Tight, energetic film ends with a whimper
by Jason Blair
STATE OF PLAY: Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, based on the BBC TV series. Cinematography, Rodrigo Prieto. Music, Alex Heffes. Starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Helen Mirren and Jason Bateman. Universal Pictures, 2009. R. 127 minutes.
“When I’m good, I’m very good,” said Mae West. “But when I’m bad, I’m better.” If only the same could be said of State of Play. A thriller of high ideals one moment, balancing suspense and erudition in equal measure, State of Play eventually veers off into irrelevance as its storylines fragment or disappear. It’s a pity, because State of Play initially makes a case for old-fashioned newspaper journalism, the kind of reporting that involves such physical endeavors as handshakes and walking down the street — not to mention a few dark alleys. In other words, risks the average blogger might avoid.
|Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck in State of Play|
Personifying the gumshoe tradition is Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe, wearing Eddie Vedder’s hair), a Saab-driving, Celtic-punk listening throwback to the era of All the President’s Men. Cal’s nemesis at the Washington Globe is Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a precocious blogger who’s all buzz and no bite. When a female assistant to a hotshot congressman (played by Ben Affleck) is killed, Della, sensing opportunity, digs into the case — with her fingers, that is, which can’t type up indignant copy fast enough. (Della appears not to own a pen.) When the congressman, who happens to be an old friend of Cal’s, publicly cries while announcing his aide’s death — a reaction that suggests “affair” better than any press release — Cal takes Della as his assistant on the case.
And what a case it is. The congressman chairs a committee investigating the privatization of Defense Department contracts, in particular the outsourcing of homeland security work to a shady conglomerate named PointCorp. Was the congressman getting so close to something that PointCorp would murder the assistant he was sleeping with? A good thriller should feel like a vice clamped around you, steadily compressing your nervous system. In its first act, State of Play manages that compression, exploiting the tension between old journalism and new, in particular how newspapers struggle to break news during the 24 hour news cycle. Or whether to break a partial story to prevent more people from dying. In its earlier, smarter moments, State of Play does more showing then telling, enacting drama rather than describing it. Then the PointCorp subplot is dropped, other subplots fizzle and the film reduces its myriad conflicts to Cal versus a PointCorp assassin.
Fortunately, several performances almost atone for State of Play’s miscues. Robin Wright Penn is note-perfect as the other victim in the congressman’s life: his wife. It might be the best work of her often-overlooked career. Viola Davis, recently Oscar-nominated for Doubt, makes an indelible mark with the tiniest scene as a coroner. Jason Bateman arrives to invigorate the film just as it’s turning flabby. Bateman’s sleazy, stoned PR guy is both hilarious and creepy, proving that Juno and Smokin’ Aces weren’t flukes but the furtherance of a second career. Only Ben Affleck, no surprise, struggles noticeably in State of Play. Affleck is weak when it really matters, nearly taking Crowe down with him.
State of Play has so many mouths to feed and so many agendas to address that, having tried to satisfy everyone, it will deeply satisfy no one. Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) shows signs of being a great director, but he hasn’t yet displayed the focus required for a truly great film. State of Play is so laden with narrative freight — the death of newspapers, adultery, the privatization of the military, the besmirching of political leaders — that in the end it simply grinds to a halt.