Dir: Kevin Macdonald. US/UK. 2009. 118mins.
It’s rare that a big-ticket thriller gets it so right. A smart, briskly-paced piece of entertainment anchored by a quietly-intense performance from Russell Crowe and an enjoyable turn from Helen Mirren, State Of Play should go the distance commercially, lifted by warm air from notices and positive word-of-mouth from journalists in thrall to this sharp-eyed take on their world.
Although it ambitiously reaches out to embrace Iraqi contractors, Washington corruption and the future of the media, director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King Of Scotland) never loses sight of State Of Play’s primary function as multiplex entertainment. Its intelligence while hitting all the right notes for that arena is to Macdonald’s credit.
From Working Title/Universal’s point of view, this is taking aim at The Interpreter end of their market (2003; worldwide $163m; US $73m; UK $13.7m), which it should easily surpass when it goes out domestically on April 17 and in the UK on April 24. Russell Crowe will bring some of his Body Of Lies following to the mix; although it’s low on action or big-bang set pieces, there’s some tightly-edited suspense sequences which give State of Play an edgy bristle.
Adapted surgically from the six-hour BBC TV drama of the same name, State Of Play sets its action around the newsroom of ‘The Washington Globe’; a marvellous set redolent of All The Presidents Men (an obvious inspiration; one of the key locations is the Watergate building while end credits pay notable thanks to The Washington Post).
In a Chandra Levy-style scenario, a political researcher for US Congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck), has died: it quickly transpires she was having an affair with the married politician, whose betrayed wife Anne (Wright Penn) must now face the press. Veteran Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Crowe) went to college and maintainsa friendship with them both; his initial reaction is to try advise on how to manage the news, but coincidences to do with Collins chairing a committee responsible for defence spending keep cropping up.
Cal’s amusingly-profane editor Cameron Lynne (Mirren), under pressure from new owners, pushes him to dig deeper and sends the paper’s novice blogger Della Frye (McAdams) to help out. (‘She’s cheap and files copy every hour.’)
State Of Play is distinguished by some swift pacing wrapped in a tight (though not entirely waterproof) plot. A sequence set in a hospital, for example, where a security guard goes missing and a character walks the corridor alone towards a vulnerable patient, is an obvious nod to The Godfather, but is so smartly executed that the payoff feels brand-new. Even talky sequences between the police, the journalists and the Globe’s lawyers are shot involvingly in the newspaper’s fishbowl set.
After a troubling start to production - Brad Pitt dropped out at the last minute - Macdonald turns in a piece that calls to mind classic 70s low-tech political thrillers All The Presidents Men,Three Days Of The Condor or The China Syndrome: smart actors; sound thrillers; sensible direction. He has retained some of the sardonic British humour from the TV series which makes the big-business, Iraqi-contractor conspiracy at the root of the action seem a little less wide-eyed and naive.
Crowe is believable here as veteran Washington reporter Cal McCaffrey. Pudgy and oddly-coiffed, he has a rocky start, entering the picture driving a bashed-up Peugot (he’s broke!) while singing along to an Irish jig (he’s Irish!) and tossing fast-food wrappers into the back seat (he’s unhealthy!). Thankfully, the character broadens out from here and Cal becomes quietly commanding, a complicated character. The tension between old and new media is nicely played out between the two newspaper professionals - and the relationship between Cal and Della thankfully remains as mentor to student, with Cal always preoccupied by Anne.
Apart from Mirren and Crowe, Jason Bateman makes a strong impression in his few short sequences as a dodgy ‘PR’ operative.
There are always issues, however: Affleck looks far too baby-faced ever to have been at college at the same time as Crowe and Wright-Penn and some of his sound bite speechifying at the Congressional table is at-odds tonally with the rest of the film.
Working Title Films
Matthew Michael Carnahan
Based on the BBC TV series created by Paul Abbott
Robin Wright Penn