State of Play (2009) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, language, and brief drug content
Running time: 127 min.

Cast: Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Robin Wright Penn, Helen Mirren, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Michael Berresse, Harry Lennix, Josh Mostel, Barry Shabaka Henley
Cameo: Viola Davis, Chris Matthews, Lou Dobbs

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Billy Ray (based on the TV series by Paul Abbott)
Review published September 12, 2009

Very loosely adapted from the 2003 BBC six-hour miniseries of the same name, State of Play puts together a tour-de-force cast and crew to deliver an interesting but heavily manufactured tale that is supposedly an indicting commentary on the state of modern journalism, politics, and the outsourcing of the military to private industry.

Russell Crowe (American Gangster, 3:10 to Yuma) stars as veteran Washington DC newspaper investigative journalist Cal McAffrey, who is given the hot scoop of delving into the possibility of foul play behind an apparent suicide of a lead research assistant to a high-profile US Congressman, Rep. Stephen Collins (Affleck, Smokin' Aces).  However, getting to the heart of the matter is tricky when it is revealed that the aide was Collins mistress, while McAffrey, an old college roommate of Collins, has had an affair of his own with the congressman's wife, Anne (Penn, What Just Happened).  With the help of leading political blogger Della Frye (McAdams, The Family Stone), McAffrey delves into a dangerous situation involving a multibillion dollar defense contractor industry, embodied by the leading company, PointCorp, currently under investigation by Collins in a public forum. 

The screenwriting credits are a veritable who's who of some of the major talents working in the political thriller today.  Matthew Michael Carnahan had first crack at the adaptation, after his work on two very intriguing political scripts for The Kingdom and Lions for Lambs.  From there, the script was handed over to Tony Gilroy, known for his work on crackerjack espionage thrillers Michael Clayton and the Bourne trilogy.  Also having their hands in rewrites were Billy Ray, who tackled political thrillers Breach and Shattered Glass, and Peter Morgan, who previously worked with director Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, One Day in September) on his acclaimed him, Last King of Scotland, and adapter of Frost/Nixon.

Macdonald tries to capture the political thrills one might find in the classic paranoia thrillers of the 1970s, especially the Alan J. Pakula films All the President's Men and The Parallax View.  While he does capture the essence of those films in his rhythms, the script feels much more like the potboiler John Grisham films prevalent in the 1990s.  The look is sleek, with excellent cinematography.  The acting is excellent, even if the characterizations are sketchy, and supporting characters' utility to the plot are sometimes telegraphed from first introduction.  Set up to be a twisty thriller, there are just too many of these tells to keep savvy thriller junkies in a state of surprise.  This is one of those cases where each individual performance is fine in their respective moments, but many of the characters seem to be playing in entirely different films. 

The more intriguing elements of the film don't come from the main plot itself.  Rather, it's the smaller interplay among the characters that capture the attention, particularly as a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of a big city newspaper and the back dealings of congress and their handling of the media.  In particular are the moral dilemmas that these characters go through, wrangling between conflicting loyalties to friends, profession, and country.  It's interesting to see how each character uses the other with ulterior motives in play.

Though fiction, the institutions within the story are thinly veiled representations of real-world entities, with the Washington Globe mirroring the Washington Post and  PointCorp a basic representation of companies like Blackwater and Halliburton.  One underlying theme of the film is the last hurrah of the major newspaper in its ability to tell a story and have the clout to get to news sources that bloggers and their ilk on the internet can't.  It also shows the passing of the baton from print to online media, utilizing different means to get the story, as well as its information to the masses whose primary source of information comes from online.

Some good moments of action are sprinkled throughout.  A deadly showdown between McAffey and a gun-toting assassin in the depths of a parking garage generates a good deal of excitement, even if it detracts from the realism of the overall story.  That's one of the basic problems of the film -- it tries both to be a savvy, high-minded political drama while going for more lowbrow scenes of action and soap opera-worthy melodramatics.

State of Play is worthwhile viewing for fans of political thrillers.  Though it has its moments of obviousness, there is a level of intrigue that does develop as the twists and turns in the story come into play, changing the nature of the relationships rapidly as the close nears.  Although put together with a great deal of talent, ultimately Macdonald can't quite keep the storyline focused enough to really drive any of the bigger points home, even if some of the smaller touches develop nicely.  Tension never develops to that fever pitch that is the mark of a truly great thriller, but for a bit of escapist entertainment with some interesting moral and societal dilemmas, State of Play delivers enough.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2009 Vince Leo