State of Play

Adapted from the 2003 BBC miniseries of the same name, director Kevin McDonald’s complex contemporary thriller State of Play opens with a series of seemingly unconnected incidents. In one, a man flees for his life before being shot dead in a Washington back alley. The next morning, a beautiful young political intern commits suicide by jumping under a train.

Seemingly unconnected, that is, until grizzled veteran journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) starts sniffing around. He’s a close friend of the dead girl’s boss, rising U.S. Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who soon admits they were having an affair. Collins is deeply involved in a congressional investigation into a Haliburton-like private military corporation, so cannot afford the scandal. But there is much more to the story, as McAffrey and his newspaper’s bright on-line blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) come to realise.

Essentially, the story boils down to an analysis of two conjoined systems, government and journalism, and the individuals that get chewed up in their gears when an outside party tosses in a spanner. Director Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland) has reams of story to get through but he frames his tangled conspiracy against a backdrop of topical headlines: the challenges faced by print news, the rise of private security firms, the collusion between arms companies and the military. His well-weaved references and allusions add consequence to the thriller, even if some of them flash past too quickly for comprehension.

State of Play races through the story in a series of fleeting moments, quick scenes that hint at further developments whiz by, sometimes hidden in exciting action scenes, sometimes buried among the everyday chores of a working newsroom. You have to keep at least one eye open to even begin to follow a story in which everything might be significant, a consequence of trying to cram the original series’ six-hour running time into a cinematic timeframe and I am not certain the rewards justify the exertion.

The screenplay, from Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray, gives us so much material to sift through, and at such pace, that it is tempting to watch the film with an editor’s red pencil. In comparison, there isn’t a word out of place in Alan Pakula’s All The President’s Men, which had the added challenge of being condensed from real events.

Crowe brings an authentic dishevelment to his role, his pasty body wrecked by hours sat at a desk, eyes reddened from peering at a screen; he looks exhausted in the opening frames, flipping crisps into his mouth as he drives to a crime scene. The actor maintains the sense of fatigue all the way through, but he is still enormously vital, quick-witted, strong and determined.

Rachel McAdams is well able for Crowe as the tough-cookie on-line reporter, matching him beat for beat through tricky dialogue and carrying her role’s heavy metaphorical weight lightly. In the secondary cast, Jason Bateman excels as a cynical PR guru who tries to talk himself out of a desperate situation while Helen Mirren does her clipped and acid turn as the British editor trying to keep the paper from going under. Robin Wright Penn, as Collins’ humiliated wife, channels her anger and desire for revenge into a series of tiny gestures, all designed to hold herself together.

A taut, well-acted thriller that also acts as a love-letter to print journalism, State of Play overcomes some unsubtle plot gyrations and a creeping sense of fragmentation with the brute intelligence of the dialogue and careful direction.

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