Friday, April 17, 2009

State of Play: Suspenseful game

State of Play (2009) • View trailer for State of Play
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.17.09
Buy DVD: State of Play • Buy Blu-Ray: State of Play [Blu-ray]

The fire alarm went off as the third act heated up during Tuesday evening's preview screening of State of Play, and the collective moan of disappointment clearly indicated the degree to which the Sacramento-area audience had been wrapped up in the drama.

We all dutifully filed out of the theater, joining other customers departing from their respective movies, and everybody's night out came to a premature conclusion. Full disclosure demands that I acknowledge not yet having seen the final half-hour or so of State of Play (although I certainly intend to catch up with the rest).
The first time Della (Rachel McAdams) seeks help from Cal (Russell Crowe),
he blows her off, not willing to be bothered by an upstart who believes that
self-indulgent blogging is the height of journalism. But as their two
respective stories unexpectedly converge, Cal takes a chance that Della will
get fired up by the hynotic allure of true investigative reporting; his hunch
proves correct, and then this story really kicks into gear.

That said, I'm quite comfortable pronouncing director Kevin MacDonald's film an absorbing thriller, based both on the 90 minutes we did see, and my recognition of the fidelity with which screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray adapted the gripping 2003 British miniseries  Paul Abbott, take a bow  on which this film is based.

As a sidebar, State of Play also reminds me of the degree to which investigative journalists make great movie heroes, and the potential loss we all face, in a world of downsized  or fully shuttered  newspapers no longer able to sic inquisitive reporters on highly placed political and/or corporate figures who are Up To No Good.

Hollywood has produced plenty of great films about newspapers and reporters, from the exaggerated farce of His Girl Friday to more cautionary dramas such as Call Northside 777 and All the President's Men. State of Play belongs with the latter.

And I'm not just saying this because this film's protagonist delivers a few superbly placed shots about the poorly researched, self-indulgent uselessness of most blogs. Although those are great one-liners. And I did want to stand up and cheer.


MacDonald's film hits the ground running, with two seemingly unrelated events: the execution-style killing of a young street punk, and the attempted murder of an unfortunate witness; and the apparent suicide-by-subway of Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), a Capitol Hill staff assistant and researcher to rising congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck).

Veteran Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) gets the first story, and is intrigued by the marksmanship involved with the double-shooting. The second piece falls to fresh-faced Globe blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), who sees little beyond the obvious fact that the very married Collins was having an affair with his assistant.

Thus, in the time-honored fashion of sleazy tabloids  the level to which most so-called "news" bloggers aspire  Della leads the charge to smear the congressman.

But things get complicated, both with respect to these disparate events, and with the players involved. Cal and Collins are former college roommates, long estranged but still mutually respectful; both men loved the woman, Anne (Robin Wright Penn), whom Collins eventually married, and now must face, in the wake of the escalating scandal.

Cal also has a reporter's mistrust of coincidence: Collins is chairing a high-profile congressional committee investigating abuses in the Defense Department, specifically the degree to which an independent military contractor  think Blackwater, in all but name  has been committing atrocities in Iraq and making billions by charging the U.S. government for its mercenary-for-hire services. With Collins de-fanged by the very public eruption of his extra-marital activities, the congressional investigation is likely to collapse.

Cal smells a rat.

Persuading Della to consider the bigger picture is his first challenge; happily, the young reporter has good instincts, and obviously has been hoping to sink her teeth into a real story. (You go, girl!)

Winning over their overworked and long-suffering editor, Cameron (Helen Mirren), is a much tougher task. Distracted by the minutia of a fresh corporate takeover, Cameron has been ordered by the Globe's new owners to abandon slowly gestating stories and obey the tabloid dictate: If it bleeds, it leads.

She simply can't give Cal and Della the time they need to find and pursue the leads for what sounds like the sort of ludicrous global conspiracy theory beloved of James Bond movies.

At the same time, the conflicted Cameron has enough of the ink-stained good ol' days in her blood to deeply resent the bean-counting demands of her new superiors. Mirren is wonderfully feisty, and the decision to make Cal and Della's editor a woman  Bill Nighy had this role in the British miniseries  is as inspired as Judy Dench's ascension as M in the aforementioned Bond films.

Most of the time, though, all eyes will be on Crowe. He's thoroughly persuasive as a dogged journalist: impatient with those who get in his way, but savvy enough to romance his sources with the skill of a Lothario wooing women into his bed. Superficially, Crowe is the epitome of the scruffy, hard-drinking loner: so thoroughly inhabiting the familiar stereotype that he actually makes it fresh.

But the true measure of Crowe's performance comes from the subtler stuff: the critical moment as Cal assesses Della, and tries to decide whether she'll be worth his time; or, later, the changing expression on his face, as Cal works his way through a series of phone calls  fumbling with his cell while driving  surprising those who answer and then emerging with a completely unexpected lead. The latter scene, in particular, is marvelous.

We very quickly believe that this is a guy who could get to the bottom of any story ... and, more importantly, we want him to.

McAdams has a challenging role. Della starts as a smug upstart, refusing to believe that a dinosaur like Cal could be of any consequence; she gradually thaws and eventually changes her tune, captivated by the seductive charge of making people squirm for legitimate reasons. McAdams sells her character's evolution, although she has trouble emerging from the much more flamboyant Crowe's shadow.

Affleck makes Collins something of a cipher, and deliberately so. It's hard to get a bead on this congressman; he certainly seems to be fighting the good fight ... and yet there's a trace of smarm about the man, and we can't help wondering if he's worth Cal's respect.

Wright Penn is understated and convincing as the wronged wife seeking a fresh start, and Jason Bateman has a brief but memorable role as an unctuous publicist with expensive taste and little common sense. Josh Mostel and Michael Weston provide mild comedy relief as two Globe staffers assigned to help Cal and Della; although both men are goofs, they're also quite useful.

Considerable time is spent in the Globe offices, and production designer Cheryl Carasik certainly makes this rarefied world look authentic. Cal's desk must have taken weeks to assemble, with its clutters of notes and stacks of files covering every inch of space. His dilapidated car and frowzy apartment look equally lived-in: unkempt badges of honor for a guy who views the single-minded pursuit of truth and justice as a virtue.

Much has changed during the six years since Abbott conceived his original BBC miniseries, and so this American translation adds fresh tension to an already charged storyline. Abbott's crusading journalistic opposites were seasoned investigator and impulsive cub reporter; this film's screenplay includes the escalating conflict between old (print) and new (Web) journalistic styles, and the contempt both sides feel for each other, not to mention the hovering knowledge that Cal isn't the only "dinosaur" present ... the entire Globe faces extinction, as well.

Abbott's miniseries was a cautionary tale about shadowy government abuse; MacDonald's film calls that bet, and raises with the very real possibility that we may be about to lose the only dedicated knights in a position to expose such behavior.

All wrapped up in a crackerjack thriller: slick, compelling and quite disturbing.

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