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Friday, May 15, 2009
'State of Play'
A good scrap that falls flat
There's a scene in "State of Play" where an unkempt, hard-nosed veteran reporter (Russell Crowe) — you know, the type who drink their whiskey straight, out of a paper cup — meets his new colleague, a younger, perkier journalist (Rachel McAdams) who bangs out gossipy blogs for their newspaper's digital edition.
The reporter's old college buddy (Ben Affleck), now an earnest crusading congressman , has been implicated in a sex scandal, and the blogger is obviously fishing for some inside info. The vet bristles, but the blogger pleads: "I'm just trying to get a little context." To which the reporter fires back, "By 'context,' you mean 'dirt'?"
The tension between old-school, feet-on-the-ground, attribute-your-quotes reporting and new-school, speed-over-accuracy, innuendo-friendly blogging is at the heart of this film. And "State of Play" is a clever, complex thriller, pitting scrappy reporters vs. a vast, shadowy conspiracy of the rich and powerful. If you've seen any films by its screenwriters, Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton") and Matthew Michael Carnahan ("Lions for Lambs"), then you'll know what to expect. But beyond the crime and coverup, this is practically an elegy to an era.
Films about scrappy reporters are almost as old as cinema itself, from "His Girl Friday" through "Shattered Glass," but as newspapers increasingly go the way of the dinosaurs — like music before them, besieged by a digital model that expects "free" content while somehow expecting such content to be magically produced without a budget — newsroom reporters will become as anachronistic on-screen as dial telephones or chain smoking.
"State of Play" wishfully suggests that the newsroom ethos — of getting the story, not spinning it — may be handed down to bloggers. I'm not sure about that one, but it's a nice sentiment, and akin to telling children people will love them for who they are.
The film begins with a double shooting in a Washington, D.C., alley, and then a death in the subway. They seem unrelated, but when beat reporter for The Washington Globe, Cal McAffrey (Crowe), starts digging around, surprising connections turn up. The subway death was that of a young congressional aide, who it turns out Sen. Stephen Collins (Affleck) was sleeping with, and whose death may or may not have been an accident. This comes just as the senator was about to lead an inquiry into Homeland Security contractor PointCorps (Think: Blackwater), who are suspected of fleecing the federal government and seeking to usurp and privatize its security functions. That injects quite a post-Bush real-world worry into this fictional caper.
Subplots arise concerning Collins' angry spouse, Anne (Robin Wright Penn), who's confiding in Cal, who she once had a fling with; Cal's overbearing boss Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), who's clearly interested in the sex-scandal headline more than the conspiracy, while fretting that the paper's days are numbered; and a shady, coked-up fixer named Dominic Foy (a wonderfully sleazy Jason Bateman), who trades in loose women and tight-lipped connections.
Director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland," "Touching The Void") keeps things moving along quickly, as he needs to, since he's compressing a 6-part BBC miniseries into a mere two hours, and the loose ends dangle shamelessly. The breathless pace is enjoyable for most of the film, though the incredibly shaky camera work by the usually excellent Rodrigo Prieto was a bad choice, and is better at inducing motion sickness than in suggesting a documentary vibe.
The real problem arises with the last-reel surprises. Aside from being incredibly lame and destroying the hard-earned realism of the previous two hours, they will leave you doubting that all the dots really do connect. These last-minute revelations also undo almost everything the film had been trying to say about the evil intersections of corporate money and political power, as "State of Play" wimps out and becomes just another psycho-killer thriller. It's kind of like if Oliver Stone's "JFK" got to the last reel and said maybe it was just Lee Harvey Oswald after all. Underwhelming.