State of Play (2009) dir. Kevin MacDonald
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren
The original British Mini-Series “State of Play” produced in 2003 was supposed to have been so good it got director David Yates the directors gig on the last two Harry Potter films, and possibly the final chapter, yet to be filmed. I confess not having seen it, so I can only judge on this filmed version without any context.
The big screen adaptation turns out to be a surprisingly conventional investigative thriller aided by heapings of Hollywood gloss from star power casting of Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck et al and esteemed writing triplicate of Matthew Michael Carnhan (‘The Kingdom’), Tony Gilroy (the Bourne Series, and ‘Michael Clayton’) and Billy Ray (‘Shattered Glass’, ‘Breach’).
Russell Crowe is perfect as the determined but flawed uber-professional newsman Cal McAffrey, an old-school Woodward and Bernstein type of journalist, who drives an old Volvo and shits upon his young coworker who writes for the paper’s ‘blog.’ McAffrey becomes embroiled in the case of a lifetime when the mistress of US Congressman and McAffrey’s former roommate, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is killed under mysterious circumstances. But it’s the young and energetic blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdam) who breaks the case and runs with it. In an effort to help his old buddy McAffrey secretly aids in Frye’s investigation, securing evidence directly from the sources without police approval. As McAffrey digs deeper into the case larger stakes are revealed thus endangering his career and himself.
“State of Play” is one of those men-in-suits films - intellectual, career-minded power players with big egos, battling white collar crime in the political arena. Casting is king in these films. And heavy-weight thespians turn up in every scene – Crowe, Helen Mirren, Viola Davis, Robin Wright Penn all lend their weight to the seriousness. And Jason Bateman's fun cameo midway even adds a fresh bit of humour.
For two thirds director Kevin MacDonald executes a razor sharp thriller anchored with rock solid believeability and integrity by Russell Crowe. His foppish hair and portly swagger contrast well against his creative and quick thinking mind. The contradiction bleeds into his ethically controversial decisions he makes about the case.
Key to the conflict of the first half is the battle between the newspapers and the cops for the story. The newspaper guys, at every turn, seem to have an edge on the authorities, which results in a couple of key deaths. Unfortunately the moral and ethical responsibility of this on McAffrey and Frye never goes deeper than a light brush of the surface. And to the detriment of the film the cops are discarded from the plotting in the second half and become largely an ineffectual non-entity in the events.
Looking at the big picture, the film also suffers from the inherent predictability of the genre. Kinda like a blues song. No matter how modern you make a blues song, the pattern of notes is always the same. Same goes with “State of Play”, the payoff for a film like this rarely ever exceeds the excitement of the buildup. As the plot is resolved with traditional ‘hook and twist’ tactics the final emotional statement made is vacant and empty.
I think a story of this kind is best delivered by the television medium, which is why most critics will probably direct you to the mini-series after watching the film. The supreme example of the effectiveness of serialized television with this material is "The Wire" – HBO’s underrated yet supremely awesome cop series - which had five seasons to play out similar angles. With only two hours to work with “State of Play” ultimately feels entertaining in the moment but disposable in the end.