State of Play
Directed by: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Russel Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren
Running Time: 2 hrs 10 mins
Plot: The mysterious death of a Capitol Hill research assistant unfolds into political scandal after Congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck) admits he was having an affair with her. Meanwhile, seasoned Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Crowe), Collins’ old college roommate, can’t seem to decide whether his strained friendship with the troubled congressman is worth cashing in on his exclusive access to the central source in the biggest story of the year. But the more McAffrey, along with his spitfire assistant Della Frye (McAdams), investigates the death of the assistant, the closer he’s led to PointCorp, one of the nations largest private arms dealers, which is about to sign a multi-billion-dollar government contract. As the investigation winds down, and Cal and Della inch closer to truth, it’s the journalists themselves that end up in the cross-hairs in one of the biggest government cover-ups since Watergate.
Who’s It For? As a journalist, this film is right up my alley–there are lots of references with the changes newspapers are undertaking today, like the need to redesign and repackage, and bickering between traditional and online reporters, and the pressure to use news that sells over news that matters. That said, this is a film that will appeal to anyone who can empathize with an industry that is suffering as a result of a poor economy and an inability to change quickly enough to save itself. And if that’s not a draw, there’s political intrigue aplenty.
Expectations: With such a solid cast, it would be tough to imagine this film sucking too hard, especially if the writing is at least decent. And given that the story is adapted from a wildly popular BBC miniseries of the same name, the script isn’t likely to be its biggest problem.
Russell Crowe as Cal McAffrey: Though rumor has it this role was originally on hold for a Brad Pitt, the much less sexy Crowe seems a wiser choice. It’s easy to accept him as the grumpy old reporter type, especially with the extra pudge he’s packed on since his role as Maximus in Gladiator. Though this isn’t a film that shows off any acting chops, he certainly brought the right persona to fill the shoes of the cynical–yet savvy–Cal.
Rachel McAdams and Della Frye: Though Della is miles away from Regina George in Mean Girls, McAdams breathes the same life into the young reporter. She’s feisty, ambitious and smart–thanks to the spirit McAdams’ brings to the role, there’s no question why Cal would see the potential in Della.
Ben Affleck as Stephen Collins: Putting his good looks to even better use, Affleck is a great fit for the role of a young congressman embroiled in sex scandal (after all, who could blame a naive assistant for jumping into the sack with him?). He has some unexpectedly intense scenes for being a relatively secondary character, and save for a few hiccups (literally) he rises to the task.
Talking: The dialogue in State of Play is tight and to-the-point. There’s enough explanation to keep the story clear, but not too much to bog it down. Mirren’s lines as the tough-as-nails editor trying to save her fledgling paper are especially biting and memorable. Pithy one-liners are kept at a merciful (and believable) minimum.
Sights: State of Play successfully takes scenes of mostly talking and makes them visually interesting. There’s a clear vision from the start of the film, and tone is consistently tense through the use of intentioned camera work and editing. One standout segment features Cal and Della pounding the journalistic pavement as they attempt to uncover a motive for murdering the assistant. Though there isn’t much actual action in the scene, it looks and feels as exciting as it’s meant to be in the story.
Sounds: Sharp gunshots and minor explosions help sell some of the the few action sequences in the film, and makes the situation feel even more imminently dangerous for all the characters involved. The film’s score, by Alex Heffes, is hard at work cuing the audience’s reaction at important plot points (though it is sometimes too visible in doing so).
Best Scene: While in the field investigating a lead on a potential assassin, Cal gets a bit too close the the truth and finds himself playing cat-and-mouse with a pretty unpleasant foe. Though the scene is simple and relatively uneventful, it’s shot and edited for maximum affect–and the ending is quite a pay-off.
Ending: The film ends appropriately, if a little hazily. The plot takes a surprise twist at the end that’s a bit disorienting, but it’s not a tough trail to follow. And the final montage, which chronicles the actual production of a newspaper, is fascinating.
Questions: None, except how Affleck manages to look thinner than he has in years. Whether it’s fatherhood or just the master cleanse diet, I’ll have what he’s having.
Rewatchability: The dialogue is rich enough for multiple viewings, even if the final twist is blown, and the foggier plot points could use some clarification.
Not unlike Robert Redford’s classic journalism film All the President’s Men, State of Play does a fantastic job of serving as a benchmark for the state of journalism. The might of the media is stronger than ever, but newspapers are struggling to assert their role in the future of journalism. State of Play serves as a snapshot of the transition between the old and new styles of newspaper reporting, with Cal and Della serving as perfect foils of one another. Cal is the crusty, old-school uncle with an ancient word processor, and Della may just have the tech-savvy to keep his style relevant. Their evolution as a reporting team stands for what’s possible in journalism–the cooperation of solid reporting and hyper-immediacy–and the couple may just have something to teach us all as we lumber through the economic crisis.
That said, State of Play is nothing but solid from the ground up. The premise is engaging and timely, the pacing is quick and friendly, and the plot that unfolds should belong to a much longer, messier film. Macdonald steers Crowe and McAdams to deliver one of the most genuinely interesting films of the year so far–not only is it a great adaptation, it’s a great movie in general.
Final Score: 8/10