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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Review: State of Play (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director:Kevin MacDonald
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren

State of Play is a refreshingly smart and adult film from director Kevin MacDonald. Based on the British miniseries of the same name, the Americanized version is a fast paced procedural thriller with a couple of great performances to its credit. Is it an instant classic? No, but it’s a solid, well-made movie and better than the average post-Oscar/pre-summer fare.

It begins with a double murder, when a street kid and a pizza delivery guy in the wrong place at the wrong time are gunned down in cold blood. At first it seems like a run of the mill drug related offense but soon connections start to be made between this crime and the more high profile murder of Sonia Baker, an aide to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Collins’ college roommate was Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), now a reporter with the Washington Globe and the greatest champion of Collins’ innocence. Collins is currently investigating the practices of PointCorp., a private militia that has been making a fortune in Iraq, and for McAffrey the murder and subsequent revelation of the victim’s affair with Collins reeks of a ploy to discredit the investigation.

McAffrey is teamed up with young reporter Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), whom he intends to give a crash course in real reporting. McAffrey is part of a dying breed – the print reporter who deals in hard facts – while Frye is representative of the future – an internet writer (dismissed by McAffrey as a blogger – horrors!) who deals primarily in gossip and speculation. They get off to a rough start but are soon working together like a real team under the watchful and increasingly irritated eye on their Editor-in -Chief, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren in a delightfully bitchy performance). Their investigation puts them in the cross-hairs of various nefarious factions and forces McAffrey to confront truths about his friend – and his friend’s wife (Robin Wright) – that he’d rather not acknowledge.

Crowe is an actor whose skill I admire a great deal though few of the films he’s made in the past decade have sparked my interest. He plays McAffrey as a man who obviously loves his job and is dedicated to it at the expense of personal relationships. More than once the Collinses accuse him of using them and their friendship for the sake of furthering his story and he has little to say in his own defence. Crowe renders a performance that is well-rounded in a way that few actors bother with for their non-Oscar bait fare. Mirren is the other standout of the cast and the scenes between the two crackle with energy. The whole film could have just been the two of them discussing the story and it would have made for a highly entertaining viewing experience. McAdams holds her own with both and Affleck is well-cast as the crusading but all too human politician, though it takes some suspension of disbelief to buy that he, Crowe and Wright were all in college together.

Though the film has all the hallmarks of your average thriller – the twisting plot, good guys who end up being bad guys, the killer who is always one step ahead – it’s focus on the mechanics of how the reporters put their exposé together gives it more weight and substance, making it closer in spirit to a film like All The President’s Men than the more forgettable fare that gets tossed out so often. One of the things that makes State of Play so different – and one of the things I really liked about it – is that the characters react to things like people rather than characters. So often in films people get shot at and then shrug it off like it’s nothing; here the characters are allowed to be scared, even the hero.

I’ve never seen the original State of Play but having seen this version, I really want to. I think that a good way to measure an adaptation is by how much it makes you want to seek out the source material, and in that respect this one is extremely successful. I’m sad to see that State of Play isn’t finding more success – particularly in a year that saw Paul Blart: Mall Cop at #1 for like 4 weeks – but hopefully it will find an audience once it comes out on DVD because it definitely deserves to be seen.


Anonymous said...

Action Flick Chick to Flick Chick: Well written review. Now I need to work my way back through all your reviews.

Reel Popcorn Junkie said...

Helen Mirren just didn't work for me in this movie. I thought Jason Bateman did a great job as PR man Dominic Foy.